I love the idea of an open-plan workspace. No walls, no barriers to communication. Total synergy, total creativity. But then there is the reality of an open-plan workspace. Noise. Chaos. People constantly up in my grill. Trying to get something done in this environment drives me absolutely bonkers.
Welcome to the world of the introvert.
Although we often think of the introvert as shy and the extrovert as outgoing, the difference really lies in how individuals manage their energy, how they refuel and recharge. Introverts are most comfortable exploring ideas internally and they recharge by being alone. They live inside their head and they like to think through problems before acting. Extroverts are drawn to activity, interacting with and drawing energy from lots of different people. They learn by doing and enjoy “thinking out loud”.
As a manager, you likely have a mix of introverts and extroverts on your team, and all to varying degrees. And you probably don’t have a lot of design control as far as office architecture goes. (If you do, you can create an environment like this.) But there are many ways to insure that your introverts have the space they need, both physically and mentally.
Allow individual or small group projects. Introverts aren’t sociopaths; they like people. But they may find working with large groups draining. Working in smaller groups will allow them to be at their best.
Utilize a variety of meeting formats. Introverts prefer the structure of presentations and formal meetings, where the conversational flow is controlled. The free-for-all of traditional brainstorming sessions can be frustrating for introverts. They also like to have a plan. So utilize calendars, create agendas and allow time for preparation.
Let them speak. If you’re an extrovert, make sure you’re allowing an introvert to participate in the conversation. They think before speaking, so curb your need to jump in until they’ve had time to contribute. Schedule plenty of one-on-ones and include discussion of ideas, not just tasks and projects.
Respect the cube. When people are in their cubes, treat it as a no-fly zone. As an introvert, I despise the “drop-by”. At home, nothing sets me on edge more than an unannounced visit, when I’m in the middle of a project, my hair is a mess and toys are strewn everywhere. It’s the same in the workplace. Call first. (And we’ll screen you. But get over it.)
Allow and encourage use of headphones. If you have an open-plan layout, headphones are the universal “Do Not Disturb” sign.
Acknowledge that inspiration and creativity don’t only happen in high-stimulation environments. We tend to idealize these types of environments in modern workplaces, the same way we idealize the extrovert as the creative leader. Introverts are great information processors and excel at connecting ideas. They just need some low-stimulation space to do it in.
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(Photo by Sonny Abesamis via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)