Open-office design can present an array of challenges for employees, but for introverts, the wide-open layout can be especially harmful.
“We can’t put everyone in the same basket,” Alain Morin, a Mount Royal University psychology professor observes.
Morin says the best way to increase productivity isn’t about catering to the majority but to truly understand each employee’s natural personality and work habits.
“If you put an introverted person in a space like this, it’s going to be a disaster. The person is going to be anxious,” Morin explains.
“Introverted people in the presence of others are anxious. Of course, anxiety will impede performance.”
Helen Evans Warren, chair of Mount Royal University’s department of interior design, says that despite criticisms of open office plans, there is a great need for them.
Warren has designed many open-office spaces and says the ability to see one another fosters great teamwork.
“It’s about being able to collaborate and see people and feel more connected in an office,” Warren says.
Warren adds that another reason moving towards open spaces at work has to do with shifting leadership models.
“Instead of being a very hierarchical structure, management has really shifted from that to one that is more team-based.”
The hope when creating an open office, Warren explains, is that it will mirror the way businesses have changed.
Although, some research indicates problems with open-office layouts.
In a 2018 study from The Royal Society journal, researchers looked at the impacts of architecture on collective behaviour, and found that interpersonal collaboration declined when open offices were introduced.
The study also noted that email communication between employees increased in the open-office plan, with the research suggesting employees didn’t wish to disturb their surrounding co-workers by talking.
Emily Boulter, who identifies as an introvert, is a 26-year-old intern working in environmental research at the University of Victoria. Her workplace recently moved to the open-office concept in August. She says she is struggling to adjust to the sound level, the visual distractions, and the lack of privacy.
“I feel like I end up listening to conversations that I shouldn’t be,” Boulter says. She adds the constant distractions make her uncomfortable.
Boulter would like to see a system in place for co-workers to convey their readiness to interact.
“It is harder to discern if your co-workers are available to chat or are busy. In a closed office setting, people would close their doors if they were busy. Now that is not an option.”
Morin says that introverted employees, like Boulter, may struggle more because they often have anxiety about how they are being perceived.
“There is a tendency for introverted people to self-ruminate a bit more.”
Jim Dustan, another self-described introvert, has had the unique experience of working in a closed office space that was eventually opened up. Employed by Universal Ford Lincoln for more than 40 years, the Calgary retiree says he started out in the parts department as a teen and ended his journey at 62 as a fleet and lease manager.
He says he didn’t feel as comfortable in the new open space and he never really got used to it. He adds the open-office layout could easily be improved by “supplementing the space with more private meeting rooms.”
Patrick Fitzgerald, a sales advisor at Universal Ford Lincoln, says his only complaint about the new open office is when co-workers forget to take their food home with them at the end of the day.
When companies decide to make big changes to layout, there is much to consider from a psychology standpoint, Morin says that is because genetics play such a clear role in introversion and extroversion that it’s unacceptable to believe that.
“The introverted person is going to gradually become more extroverted because of the open-office environment, this is wrong. This is not going to happen.”
He recommends big companies to pre-test all employees so that more thought is put into where they should be located in the office layout.
“They should design, in other words, an environment as a function of the traits of the company’s employees.”
- By Emily Dixon