An introvert's perspective on open plan offices
Mar 9 2014
Prologue: the brief history of an odd duck

When I was a toddler my kindergarten teacher shared a concern with my parents: I was noticeably quiet and withdrawn. Later that year, she shared another concern: she couldn't get me to shut up.

My social quirks continued through high school, where I drifted in the space between cliques. In college I feigned enthusiasm for social interaction but it was exhausting. Dating was a frustrating endeavor throughout my twenties, as I'd often end up agitated and drained after a night on the town and I couldn't even figure out why.

I was destined to be the perpetual odd duck while others seemed to connect with each other so effortlessly.

But there's been an awakening in recent years. Susan Cain's Quiet threw a spotlight on the subject of introversion and there's been lively discussion ever since. More importantly, introverts are shedding the negative stigmas and starting to see "quirks" for what they really are: assets.

What you need to know about introverts

For a preview of the world of introverts, consider paying a visit to the Introverts Are Awesome group on Facebook. Their discussions are often therapeutic for introverts and eye-opening for everyone else. In the meantime, here's my abbreviated and highly subjective summary:

  • Introversion and shyness often overlap but they're not the same thing.
  • Extroverts tend to be energized by the company of others and external stimuli, introverts are energized by time spent alone.
  • Introverts enjoy a good discussion like anyone else, but they're generally more selective with topics and conversation partners.
  • Introverts are often analytical and/or creative and are at their best when they're able to get in their "zone."
  • Prolonged exposure to small talk, Type A personalities, and/or noisy environments often results in an agitated and exhausted introvert.
Behold, the open plan office!

The open plan office is all the rage in the corporate world, designed with the goal of improving collaboration. Managers are channeling their inner Reagan, calling for the destruction of walls near and far. After all, if employees won't collaborate according to expectations, the solution is to give them no place to hide.

Iceberg, right ahead!

And with that, it's easy to see what's looming ahead.

Managers have plenty to deal with and they're not eager to explore such things as the nuances of introversion and extroversion. They know their employees will bristle at change no matter what, so when it's time to score points on the "teamwork" front, the plan is simple: go full speed ahead and assume everyone will come around.

Therein lies the rub. Introverts won't adopt your view of teamwork by sitting in a bullpen any more than they'll adopt your sense of humor by watching your favorite sitcom. This isn't an acquired taste or switching from Sweet'N Low to Splenda, this is a fundamental disruption to the way they operate. I can assure you, they'll never "come around" to forced proximity. They'll simply try to cope with the fact that their productivity is under siege.

Full circle: the return of the odd duck

I've endured my share of "team-oriented" spaces over the last decade. I've been in glorified closets, rooms that were so crowded the humidity practically dripped from the walls. I've been in bullpens where I heard every cell phone alert, every hint of indigestion, every pen cap being chewed. In one horrific case my desk was literally a few feet away from a ping-pong table, one that was actively used while I hopelessly tried to concentrate.

As an introvert I consider these environments completely unnatural and counterproductive. Something as benign as a drive-by "good morning!" can derail my train of thought, so it baffles me when I see others thrive (or at least appear to thrive) in the midst of it all. They're seemingly unfazed by the cacophony surrounding them. Unless there's a full-blown mutiny, management will conclude that the open plan gamble pays off.

Which leads us the bad news: open plan offices aren't going away anytime soon, and that doesn't bode well for introverts. Perhaps it's time to accept that we'll always be seen as odd ducks, even in the workplace.

But take heart in the good news: at least we have the comfort of knowing there are others just like us.

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