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Open-Plan Office: An Introvert's Worse Nightmare

According to author Susan Cain, open-plan offices are disastrous, particularly for introverts.

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In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain discusses the challenges introverts face in finding a productive, creative work environment:

  • Space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 in 2010
  • Schools and offices have been redesigned for extroverts, with pods of desks and open plans
  • Office environments have become louder and less private

Cain notes that open-plan offices reduce productivity and impair memory, and create a host of other problems:

[Open-plan offices] are associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure… [Open-plan office workers] have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates, releases cortisol… and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive and slow to help others.

I (Bill) am a self-confessed introvert, and Cain’s analysis certainly resonated with me. We moved into our open-plan Chicago office a few years back. I love the openness and the design aesthetic of our office. It really is a beautiful, fun space.

The problem is, I am not very productive there. If I sit in the open part of the office, I get little or no work done; there are too many distractions. There are co-workers to whom I talk, conversations I overhear, people moving in and out of my field of vision. I feel a general sense of insecurity and the need to be constantly aware of the people around me.  It provides too much stimulation and really jangles my nerves!

In a subsequent article I will talk about the biology of introversion, but the net result is that I have above-average sensitivity to stimuli, especially social stimuli. Social environments that others find “normal” I find loud, distracting, and nerve-wracking. Just as I wear sunglasses on a bright sunny day, I need to put barriers between me and the office.

I should point out that I love my co-workers! They are genuinely fun and likeable people who lead interesting lives. I like to talk to them and generally hang out with them. Ironically, if I did not care about them at all, I could be much more productive. I have no problem working on an airplane (a much louder and cramped environment) because I have no affinity for my fellow passengers.

But at our Chicago office I am just too aware of my co-workers and have a hard time thinking clearly in that open-plan environment.

Since my job depends on my ability to think clearly, that is bad! I realized that over the years I have subconsciously developed a number of techniques to find peace and quiet in a loud environment and gain more control of my work space. If you face similar challenges, try some of these techniques:

1. Set aside chunks of “alone time.”

I arrive at the office very early in the morning so I can get a few hours of work done when I am at my most productive, well before people arrive at the office.

I also set aside two to four hours most days with no meetings, where I can focus on catching up and finding time to concentrate and recharge.

Finally, I often do a couple hours of work on Sunday night, right before I go to bed. I find I sleep much better when I do so because I am feeling less stressed and more in control of the work week that lies ahead. After a great relaxing weekend, this helps me get mentally back in the game.

2. Structure your work life to create a healthy level of separation.

I generally set up shop in one of our conference rooms right next to the open-plan area, which has a glass door. That way I can see my co-workers (and they can see me) but there is less noise and fewer distractions.

I also spend a lot of time working from home or hotels, where I am separated from my colleagues and clients. I am much more productive during those times.

3. Set personal goals for individual creativity and productivity; pursue them with discipline.

I find that setting goals and deadlines for myself really helps me focus, even if the deadlines are artificially tight. If I do not achieve my goals in a given workday, I am highly inspired to wake up early and catch up.

4. Set aside time to socialize.

Using the techniques above, I have to take care not to become too separated from my co-workers. At various points of the day I need to clear my head and take a break. I consciously try to wander around the office during those times, so that I can hang out with folks and catch up. These informal interactions with co-workers are stimulating and refreshing.

I also find that my productivity drops toward the end of the day, so I take the pressure off myself, call it quits for the day, and just go hang out at the proverbial “water cooler” (in our case, the ping pong table). The alternative is to stare at a computer screen while tired, which is not very productive. Besides, my ping pong game needs the work.

These techniques help me find peace and quiet in a loud world, which helps me to be more of a well-adjusted, productive, creative, happy business leader. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Innovation--the heart of the knowledge economy--is fundamentally social” – Malcolm Gladwell

“None of us is as smart as all of us” – Warren Bennis, Organizing Genius

How does you manage your work environment and find peace and quiet?  Please share your thoughts with us at karlandbill@avondalestrategicpartners.com.

IMAGE: Marcel Oosterwijk/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 28, 2013

KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree.
@karlstark




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