Extroverts can solve problems amid lots of background noise, research shows, while introverts need calm around them to get their best work done.
Yet a third of us work in loud, distracting open offices. And that’s especially a problem for introverted workers.
“Everybody functions at their best when they’re at their optimal level of stimulation,” says Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” “If you’re getting too much simulation, you can’t think properly; you feel overwhelmed and jangled. If you’re not getting enough stimulation, you get bored and zone out.”
Thus, the distracting, exhausting, and discouraging effects of the open office.
In the open plan layout, employees are arrayed in rows of tables or desks, with little to no walls between them, all while management exhorts the serendipity, collaboration, and teamwork that will come along with all that openness.
That enthusiasm springs from a misunderstanding of teamwork, Cain says.
“It all starts with the notion that to be an effective team member you should be available to your team at every moment of every day,” Cain explains. “That’s an unrealistic idea of how human beings relate to each other and contribute. If you think of a marriage or a friendship, sometimes you’re together and sometimes you’re apart — and that’s natural and good.”
In the old days, you’d be able to signal that you needed to concentrate — and thus not interact face to face with your team — by shutting your office door. But with an open office, being out in the open signals your availability all day long, unless you’ve got headphones on, which Cain says “are an impoverished solution for the fundamental human need of privacy.”
Even the most extroverted among us need to have solitary moments to truly be creative, Cain says, since research shows groupthink seeps in whenever we start talking with each other.
So how can you find solitude in your open office?
The first step is to start paying attention to how tolerant or intolerant you feel of the ambient noise in your office. It varies throughout the day, Cain explains. Sometimes you’ll want to be around people, and at other times you’ll need to be on your own.
When you notice that your colleagues are starting to annoy you more than usual, duck out.
A few ways to do so:
- Book a conference room to work alone.
- Take a walk, which is also good for your creativity.
- If your company would allow you to work from a coffee shop for a few hours, try it. While it’s a public space, you won’t feel the same sense of availability as you do in the open office.
The problem is that workers often don’t feel allowed to step away when they need to.
“People know they need to take a walk, but they feel guilty,” Cain says. “There’s no reason to feel guilty, because you’ll return to work and feel refreshed and do better work for your employer. Once you take that holistic perspective, the guilt falls away.”
To make that kosher within a company, leadership needs to model the behaviour. Influential folks need to make a point that they’re taking these breaks, she says, and let other people know it’s happening — because it’s unproductive to have a culture where taking care of your psychological needs is seen as goofing off.
She gives the example of the Huffington Post: When the media company installed two nap rooms in its Manhattan headquarters, employees were initially uncomfortable with using them. But once HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington and other members of the leadership team started using them, they had to install a third one since they were so popular.
“When you meet your need to recharge everybody benefits. You’ll do more productive, analytic, creative work,” Cain says. “You can’t really be creative without a measure of solitude.”
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