My mom, an only child who grew up feeling lonely, loved working in a hospital because, as she said, “It’s like working in a family.” She thrived in that committed group in an intensely human setting, and loved teaching for the same reason. My father, at the other extreme, always said to me, “The best boss in the world is an asshole.” He was a labor arbitrator and an art dealer on the weekends, and was proud to be self-employed. I can still hear the tap-tap-tap of his typewriter and smell the cigarette smoke as he wrote decisions from his home office in the attic. Both my parents liked their work well enough, but they especially liked their radically different work environments.
One challenge for employers today is building offices that equally support people whose personalities–and subsequent working styles–differ as dramatically as my parents’ did. It isn’t easy, and it’s one reason that the era following the rise of open offices is all about multifunctional spaces. But while physical design–furniture, noise control, and so on–is a big piece of the puzzle, it isn’t the only factor.
For companies interested in building work cultures that support all personality types, there are a few simple steps you can take before deciding where that new couch should go or how many cubicles to disassemble and carry to the curb. Here are a few.
1. Ask Introverts How They’d Prefer To Connect
Yes, it really is that simple: just ask. Some of us thrive on office life–the group projects; collegiality, the conference calls, the palace intrigue–but others need quiet space to work. That doesn’t mean they’re escaping work, just that they’re more easily overstimulated.
For introverts like me, it’s easy to feel jolted by the noise, hum, and aggressive lighting of the modern office, to which digital overload adds another layer of pressure. With Slack, email, texting, and the like, you can be assaulted on three platforms at the same time–by people sitting three desks away. But managers don’t always ask their team members how they like to share and receive information. Just posing that question point-blank can be a great way to gather qualitative data on what works and what doesn’t–this way you can differentiate your modes of communication as needed.
2. Make Sure Office Events Aren’t A Job Requirement
Physical and social proximity can also be challenges for those who skew more introverted. Even fun, harmless activities like team-building exercises, group brainstorms, and sales trainings can be stressful for some. So consider whether some of these more interactive experiences can be made optional, with different formats available to those who won’t get much out of them if they’re forced to attend. (It can be as simple as taking notes during a hands-on exercise, then running through them one-on-one in an informal meeting with a team member who would’ve found that stressful.)
At a minimum, managers shouldn’t equate commitment to the job with enthusiasm for group experiences in the workplace. Likewise, just because one of your employees leaves right at 5 p.m. doesn’t mean she isn’t invested in her work; she may just need some space at the end of an overwhelming workday. Cultivating temperamental diversity starts with a little understanding–and the flexibility that comes with it.
3. Choose Quality Over Quantity For Being Available Digitally
Most people complain about being on-call to bosses all the time via email and Slack. But many introverts may actually find that a fair tradeoff in exchange for more flexibility. A boss can rest a bit easier knowing an employee who works at home still will answer emails at 9:00 p.m. when the situation warrants it. The key is to give your team members more power to make those calls.
Indeed, study after study shows that the most engaged and productive workers are those who feel a sense of control over their work lives. So, work with your introverts to give them more autonomy over when and how they can be available online. This could be as simple as having a day a week to work from home, coming in a bit later or leaving early, or revising a meeting-heavy culture in favor of creating more “maker time.” It also means respecting invisibility, whether that means an “away” indicator on Slack or an out-of-office message on email. Once you’ve let team members set boundaries regarding their digital presence (or absence), you need to respect them.
Companies are already working to redesign work to suit many different temperaments, which will hopefully lead to work cultures where all personality types thrive collectively. But while an office’s physical setup can certainly make a huge impact, that’s not the only variable in play. Even if your organization doesn’t have the budget to build a fancy, multifunctional office, these simple rules and habits can help you expand the range of ways people work–to match the range of traits, personalities, and work styles they bring to work every day.
Morra Aarons-Mele is the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home).