Susan Cain's book Quiet has inspired a cacophony of articles, blog posts, and water cooler conversation about the modern day work space. And for good reason—more than 60% of us work in office settings, and the design of the place affects our productivity, the quality of our work, and our wellbeing.
Cain says that our culture idealizes extroverts, that introverts are second class citizens. She questions American culture, in education and business, which she feels overvalues teamwork. Introverts thrive in environments that are not over-stimulating—surroundings in which they can think deeply before they speak. She rails against commercial offices' move away from private offices and into open, collaborative work spaces.
Indeed, some people need quiet to be productive. Some of our clients tell us that their big ideas people, writers, and researchers need quiet to do their work. One R&D client told us, "Just give them a closet and a computer and they'll be happy and productive." And research on a broader scale supports this claim. In Jonah Lehrer's New Yorker article "Groupthink," he quotes Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University as saying, "Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas."
Above: Employees and teams at National Grid use cafes as alternative work spaces
In the open layouts that are rapidly gaining popularity in new offices and renovations, introverts often put on their headphones, don't answer their phones because they don't want to talk in front of others, and are heads down on their computers.
Yet other people are more effective as a result of open work space. For them, overhearing conversations leads to insight rather than annoyance, and they are fueled by collective energy. For example, we recently met with marketers in a creative company who prefer working in a buzzy space where they can bounce their ideas off others.
College campus centers are full of students who prefer to multitask in a social environment. Millennials who want to work anytime, anywhere are in the workplace now, and companies needs spaces that will attract young talent. Today's workplace design must account for the preferences of this new generation.
One thing is clear: old office spaces don't work for either extroverts or introverts. They neither allow for collaboration, nor do they afford workers' privacy. If you don't already work in one every day, try sitting in an office space with high furniture panels: the traditional cubicle. There may be a perception of solitude—you can't see the people around you—but you can hear them, and they can hear you. What kind of privacy is that?
Above: 95% of employees at National Grid have access to light and views
Furthermore, the design of office environments isn't solely informed by how workers do (or don't) interact. Real estate costs are typically second highest after salaries and benefits. An open layout allows companies to use less square footage, reducing costs considerably—and research shows that people are only at their desk 50% of the time anyway!
The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all design solution for the office environment. In any given office, there are a range of personalities. How do we accommodate the introvert, the extrovert, and those who fall somewhere in between?
We must also design office environments that increase efficiency and space utilization. The ideal office enhances how people work together and drives down costs associated with space.
Giving office workers alternatives to their open desk is one way of addressing individual needs. In our design work, we use supplementary work settings like unassigned meeting areas, project rooms, phone rooms, lounges, cafes, and even quiet common work rooms in our projects to make sure that the environment supports a variety of work styles and personalities.
At National Grid, we implemented design that brought 95% of staff into the open and decreased square footage by more than 50%. Employees now have access to views to the outdoors as well as natural light. These open offices also allow for better air circulation. The acoustical design, which includes sound absorptive materials and sound masking, helps keep distraction to a minimum. And the result has been successful, but only because we provided lots of flexible meeting and work spaces away from the open workspace.
Effective design requires research, and listening to clients about how they work and how they want to work today and in the future. We spend a great deal of time observing the work of each client—individual and group, formal and informal—to inform our design and ultimately make it successful.
Technology advancements, generational differences, cultural changes, personal preferences, and economics continue to change how we work. Designers have to respond with functional, efficient spaces and state-of-the-art acoustical design. We have the responsibility to help clients understand the pitfalls of squeezing employees into a one-size-fits-all solution and guide them towards workplaces that not only house workers, but also support, delight, and inspire them.