Anywhere between one-third and one-half of the population are thought to be as introverts.
Yet, most workplaces are set up primarily with the needs and preferences of extroverts in mind. Around 70 percent of the workforce in the U.S. and Europe work in open-plan offices where high levels of background noise, a constant stream of distractions, unwanted interruptions, small talk and group collaboration are the norm.
This may suit the more extroverted among us who crave buzz-filled environments and plenty of opportunities for stimulating social interaction, but for introverts—who require a certain amount of alone time to feel at their most energized—it can be a recipe for lost productivity, stress and general unhappiness.
There’s a lot of advice out there focused on encouraging introverts to be more outgoing if they want to stand out and succeed at work, but perhaps what introverts could really benefit from are more opportunities to harness their strengths for maximum energy, productivity and contribution. For all the introverts who currently find themselves stuck in an extrovert centered workplace, here are some strategies we can all adopt to help us better cope and ultimately thrive in our jobs.
Disengage whenever possible:
Just because we’re stuck in a room full of people, doesn’t mean we need to make ourselves available to them at all points throughout the day. There are a few simple techniques revolving around non-verbal messages that are usually very effective when it comes to reclaiming some much needed space and time for ourselves.
At the most basic level, arranging body language to convey busyness or absorption usually does the trick. We can stare intently at the computer screen, or put our head down and support it with an arm when we’re writing or studying something at our desk. We can also make the most of additional visual cues such as headphones (there’s no need to actually have any music playing) or try arranging things like stacks of files, books, a plant or coat stand in a way that creates more privacy.
This sort of behavior comes naturally to most introverts. What’s more, people are often surprisingly sensitive and receptive to such cues, making it a simple and effective strategy for minimizing interruptions from work colleagues.
Use breaks wisely:
In an extroverted and often work obsessed culture it can be difficult to take regular breaks alone, or even to find time to take any at all. In some workplaces it may be the norm to skip lunch entirely or to just pop out for a hasty mid-afternoon coffee.
This isn’t great for anyone’s well-being, but for introverts especially, it’s important to be able to get away—preferably by stepping outside for a rejuvenating solitary walk in nature. Whilst extroverts will feel recharged by chatting with others during their time-off, introverts need the exact opposite—some respite from the excessive stimulation that characterizes most work environments.
Even if taking plenty of breaks is socially acceptable in a particular office, it’s likely that most people will use this time as an opportunity to socialize with colleagues. The expectations and pressure to be with others when we’d rather be alone can become suffocating for many introverts. Turning down invitations from co-workers may create a degree of friction, but carving out time for yourself is essential for mental clarity and keeping stress levels in check.
We may not all feel comfortable explaining the real reason for taking solitary breaks, so it can help to have a couple of convincing explanations at hand, regardless of whether or not they reflect the whole truth. For example, for those of us who live near to work, we can say that we prefer to save money by cooking lunch at home rather than eating out. Or, say that we like to use our lunch breaks for exercise—so long as no one insists on joining you at the gym! For those of us feeling guilty about taking time away from the desk, remember that we all feel much more energetic and productive afterwards.
Adjust working times:
Another strategy introverts may be tempted to adopt centers around tailoring the working day in accordance with others schedules and/or how quiet the office is. There are a few stories circulating the internet of people choosing to arrive an hour or two early or staying a little later so that they’re more likely to get a decent period of uninterrupted work in. We could also get into the habit of making a mental note of quiet periods in the office, such as early afternoon or specific times when teams hold meetings.
Be aware though that this strategy is only really fair as long as we don’t end up working more hours than everyone else without extra compensation. If this isn’t the case, or you simply feel that adjusting work hours is an inconvenience which just creates new problems, then this strategy is not advised.
Harness solitude for creativity and “flow”:
In her best-selling book Quiet, Susan Cain highlights the myths that persist around teamwork and collaboration. Research shows that we value things that are said more loudly, forcefully or repeatedly, regardless of whether they are any more accurate or insightful than thoughts that are voiced more quietly or less frequently. A New York Times article highlighted that working with others gave rise to groupthink and happens to be much less efficient in terms of individual learning and productivity.
We also know that solitude is an essential yet often overlooked component of innovation. Some of the most creative people throughout history and across a variety of fields have significant introverted tendencies. They are able to easily immerse themselves in extended periods of uninterrupted solo work. Being alone is essential for maximum concentration, for entering a state of “flow” and for independent thought.
So, whenever possible, it may be a good idea to skip some of the more extrovert-friendly methods of working—meetings, group brainstorming sessions, conference calls and the like. At the very least, we should do our best to combine these with significant lengths of time dedicated to solo work.
Talk to the boss:
Individuals can only do so much, so it’s often a good idea to initiate discussions with colleagues and managers about how they can help make the workplace more introvert-friendly. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s probably the fastest way to make significant improvements. There’s no need to raise the particular issues of introversion or sensitivity if it doesn’t feel right. It may be more appropriate to frame the discussion in terms of efficiency and benefit to the company. It’s also worth pointing out that excessive noise, interruptions and multitasking likely have a negative effect on everyone’s productivity.
We could inquire about moving our desk to a quieter part of the office, perhaps in a corner or near a dividing wall. We could suggest installing a private room or two for people to use if they need quiet and privacy for work or phone calls. We could make suggestions for new policies at work that will benefit everyone. For example, in his TED talk, Jason Fried of 37Signals suggests introducing “no talk Thursdays” and encouraging people to move towards instant messaging rather than face-to-face discussions.
If all else fails, escape.
If none of the above strategies do the trick, it may be time to try something a little more radical. I think there comes a point where individual introverts can only put up with and try to change so much. It’s also up to employers and organizations to make adjustments to better cater to the introverted portion of the population. And if they fail to for whatever reason, we can always just leave!
With the growing accessibility of technology, it’s never been easier to start a business, launch a career as a freelancer or to negotiate a work-from-home arrangement with an employer. Being a location-independent worker comes with a whole host of perks. We avoid all the drawbacks of open-plan offices, and also reap the benefits that come along with no commuting, saved cash, more spare time, and a greater degree of flexibility, freedom and comfort.
In my mind, the best long-term solution is to do away with offices for the most part and simply let people work from wherever they want. Working remotely is especially great for introverts and highly sensitive people, but I’m certain the majority of people would embrace it and reap all the benefits that come along with it too.
Author: Sian Atkins
Apprentice Editor: Danica Taylor / Editor: Travis May
Image: Pierre Willemin