Extroverts, introverts and GSA's new office

Susan Cain, author of a recent book on introverts in the workplace, suggests that open office spaces may not be a good idea for everyone.

Author Susan Cain

Susan Cain: Strike a happy medium between open office spaces and cubicle farms. (Photo by Aaron Fedor)

The General Services Administration promotes its workplace transformation, aimed at encouraging collaboration and mobility, as the latest stage in the evolution of the modern workplace – open, non-hierarchical, designed with teamwork in mind.

And while GSA is quick to stress that there are 232 private rooms in the new workspace, with more than 150 that can be reserved easily and 80 that don't require reservations, the whole idea is to knock down walls, make cubicles a thing of the past and fling open the doors to the office of tomorrow.

But what about people who prefer to work in peace and privacy? Is the modern office space too accommodative of extroverts at the expense of introverts?

For another take on the GSA transformation, FCW talked with Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

FCW: What are your thoughts about this move toward a more open work space?

Cover of The Quiet

CAIN: I think that these kinds of spaces can be really problematic. I think they're problematic for everybody, by the way, for extroverts as well as introverts, because in an open office plan it's extremely hard for people to focus [and] they are subject to constant interruptions. People actually get sick more often because they're out there all the time. But it's particularly problematic for introverts because introverts by definition need more quiet time in order to be able to focus. We know from research that introverts do their best work when they're in quieter spaces. When they have fewer distractions around them, they will literally perform better. So I think it's a real mistake for companies to be designing office plans that put everybody out there into a big, open, noisy, distractible space. Now, the reality is that many companies are looking to save real estate costs and open office plans are much, much cheaper than traditional office spaces, so what I would say to those companies is if you must have an open office plan, at least make sure to introduce quiet spaces within that office plan. Places where people can go to be alone or to be with other people but to be in a very quiet, non-social place.

FCW: If these spaces aren't conducive to introverts, should we go back to the old cubicle workspace, or is there a happy medium to be achieved?

CAIN: Obviously most people don't really like cubicles either, so I think a happy medium would be an attractive open plan space that really has many, many places within it where people can go to be quiet. So basically an open plan arrangement that gives people choice of what kind of space they want to work in at any given moment, whether they want to be solitary or social, whether they want to be noisy or quiet. The advantage of an open plan space is that it should be able to provide all of those different options.

FCW: What could be some of the other ramifications of introverts being forced into this type of environment?

CAIN: I think it's really a waste, it's a waste of the energy of introverts, it's a waste of their best brainpower, it's a waste of their morale. I think many employers are probably under the impression that most of their workforce is quite extroverted and so that therefore they don't need to worry about this, but that's a misunderstanding. Most introverts get into the habit at work of acting much more extroverted than they really are. So it can appear that you have a workforce full of extroverts, but in fact a third to a half of the population is introverted, so that's one out of every two or three people. So no employer can afford to ignore the needs of introverts because it's going to result in a loss of productivity, a loss of brainpower, a loss of creativity, a loss of morale.

FCW: In federal agencies, a lot of the work consists of group projects and working extensively with other people, so do you think it's possible that there would be more authentic extroverts with this type of work and should that be a factor in how government workspaces are designed?

CAIN: Well this is the real myth. I mean people say that about the government, they say that about all kinds of business really, and this is what people don't understand about collaboration. Yes, we all need to be collaborating all the time. We're all dependent on each other for ideas and insights. We're all working as groups. But that doesn't mean that in our day-to-day operations, that we don't also need time and space alone. Like with many group projects, you come together as a group, but then each person goes off and works on their own separate piece of the project and then you come together as a group again to talk about what you've done. So to say that collaboration is important is not the same as saying, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we should all be sitting with a group of people. Having spoken at a number of government offices, my impression is that many people who work in the government are quite introverted. My guess is that if anyone ever did a real survey, they would find that more than 50 percent of government workers are introverts. That's just my anecdotal impression.

FCW: How does teleworking and working outside the office fit into accommodating introverts?

CAIN: Teleworking can really work well for introverts because it's a way of working more on their own terms. I think for many people, when they telework, they end up working not even from home but working from a local coffee shop and that is a setting that is often really conducive for introverts because it's a way of feeling like you're around people, which many people crave, but you still have a lot of freedom and autonomy and privacy within the coffee shop. So I think teleworking is a very positive trend. In general, if we can get toward a place where there are open office plans but embedded within those plans is a whole series of choices in terms of, you're in the open office plan but you can work from home. You're in the open office plan, but you can also sit in the library part of the open office plan where it's quiet. If we give people those kinds of choices, then we'll be a lot better off.

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