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The Modern Workplace: Introverts Need Not Apply

Trends toward open-plan offices may actually be counterproductive to employee productivity.
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In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, author Susan Cain discusses how a workplace can stifle introvert productivity. Workplaces are increasingly designed to foster teamwork, guided by beliefs such as these:

Open plan offices and group brainstorming sessions are physical manifestations of this mindset. The problem is, they may actually decrease productivity, particularly for introverts. To understand why, we must understand the drivers of introversion.

The Biology of Introverts

Q:  How can you tell if an introvert likes you?

A:  He's staring at your shoes instead of his own.

While anyone can become overstimulated in social situations, introverts appear to be more susceptible. In many cases this is biological. Dr. Jerome Kagan, a professor at Harvard's Laboratory for Child Development, developed a 45-minute evaluation for babies to predict which ones were more likely to turn into introverts or extroverts. Kagan and his team exposed the infants to a wide range of new experiences (e.g., balloons popping, colorful mobiles, voices, and smells). About 20 percent of infants were "highly reactive" to these stimuli, while 40 percent were "low-reactive."

Kagan showed that, counterintuitively, the "high-reactive" infants were more likely to become introverts, while the "low-reactive" children were more likely to become extroverts. Introverts simply become overstimulated more easily than extroverts.

The Overstimulating Workplace

More than 70 percent of today's employees work in an open plan workplace, reports Cain, and the amount of space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in 1970 to 200 square feet in 2010. These design choices greatly increase the external stimuli in the modern workplace.

As a result, "open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory," Cain says. Indeed, studies have found that open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from elevated stress and high blood pressure, and that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.

Similarly, some researchers contend that brainstorming (a quintessential group activity) is unproductive. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases:  groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse that groups of four. Organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham has written that "the evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups. ... If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."

Collaborative Workplaces

From our experience, workplaces can be very collaborative without open-plan designs.  E-mail, instant messaging, and online chat tools can take the place of group brainstorming sessions. Private, quiet places with closed doors can also provide a productivity-enhancing retreat for those who are overstimulated or need to concentrate.

Think about the design of your office:  What can you do to create more quiet spaces? What can you do to give more control of the environment to your more introverted team members? Simple changes can go a long way to keeping your team happy, healthy and productive.

How well is your workplace set up for productivity?  Please let us know your thoughts at karlandbill@avondalestrategicpartners.com.

IMAGE: Jaeger Sloan
Last updated: May 2, 2013

KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART | Columnist | Co-founders, Avondale

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.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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