Five mistakes you’re making with the introverts in your office – and how to help them thrive

Life in today’s office can be a nightmare for introverts – and if you’re not one, you might not be helping. Open-plan layouts, noisy environments, too many meetings, pings and dings and distractions: introverts hate them.

You might not think twice about those things, but you should, because about a third of us are introverts, and improving the environment for a third of your workforce can boost their focus, productivity and creativity, as well as their mental wellbeing. That helps not only them, but your business.

Since Susan Cain’s seminal 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, introversion has become a hot topic (among introverts!). Its framing of this key personality trait was a revelation, an empowering one, for a lot of people. In a nutshell, here’s how introverts and extroverts differ:

Introverts need peace, quiet and solitude, time to focus and reflect, and environments free of excess noise and activity. They get their energy from themselves and being alone.

They’re often labelled as shy or unsociable. But many are not shy and plenty thoroughly enjoy being sociable, but in smaller groups or one-to-one, or only with people they already know.

Extroverts are energised by being around other people, and by activities and their surroundings. They thrive in teams, groups and social gatherings, and are more talkative, assertive and visibly enthusiastic. They’re what you’d call a people person.

Famous introverts. Marissa Mayer Yahoo
Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer says she is naturally introverted

So here are my five things about office life that can really get introverts down, and what you can do to help them – and you.

Your office is open plan

If like me you worked in offices in the 80s and early 90s, you’ll recall smaller rooms, with fewer people sharing them, and more personal space. Then, over the 90s, companies became obsessed with knocking down walls, pushing desks together and enforcing close proximity.

The belief was that it fosters better communication, co-operation between teams, and team spirit. If you’re an introvert, you can’t help thinking that this is a nightmare set-up designed by and for extroverts.

However, there is an increasing body of evidence that refutes the claims for better communication and interaction. Indeed, one of the biggest studies of employee satisfaction, which surveyed 42,000 office workers, found it to be completely wrong.

Open-plan layouts did not make communication easier; on the contrary, the lack of privacy discouraged it. And the benefits of enhanced interaction with others did not offset loss of privacy and dissatisfaction with increased noise.

The researchers said: “Our results categorically contradict the accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication and improves occupants’ overall environmental satisfaction.”

When they looked at other evidence, they concluded: “The open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”

What to do: There’s possibly no such thing as an office that suits everyone. Offer staff home working for the days when that’s possible. Have designated quiet areas/rooms that they can use when they need to. (Lead by example – no one wants to be first at the buffet table!)

In an office rejig, consider individuals as well as the team. Involve people and give them the chance to say what does and doesn’t work for them. Don’t make this an across-the-desk debate (obviously!) where only the loudest voices get heard.

You want them to make presentations

Words many introverts dread: “Great idea! Can you present it to the group on Thursday?”

It’s not that all introverts shy away from the spotlight. You might be surprised to learn that Emma Watson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, JK Rowling, Audrey Hepburn, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are all introverts.

Famous introverts. Tom Ford
Tom Ford is an introvert who nevertheless has a high public profile

But, while they may love what they do, they may not love the attention but have had to learn to cope as it goes with the territory.

Tom Ford told GQ Magazine: “I’m an introvert but I live the life of an extrovert. I am aware of the value of image to sell product, which is what I do.”

What to do: This doesn’t mean they don’t like to communicate. They can excel at building relationships one to one. They might be happier putting forward ideas and discussing their concepts and strategies in a small group than in the spotlight.

Introverts can have a flair for the written word and written communication rather than the spoken, and it could work for them – and you – to make that a bigger part of their role (social media, for example).

Also, someone can be an introvert but not at all shy, and extroverts can be shy. Plus, introvert/extrovert is a scale, with a lot of people somewhere in the middle. Beware assumptions and generalisations!

You have too many meetings

Introverts don’t do their best thinking in meetings. They prefer to work alone, and need time for reflection and to think strategically if they are to get the best out of their brains.

Albert Einstein said: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.”

In Quiet, Steve Woznaik (Apple co-founder and early pioneer of the computer revolution) is quoted as saying: “Most inventors and engineers I have met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads. They work best when they are alone.”

What to do: Allow, even encourage, solitude and quiet time. Introverts need this physical and mental space, to focus, to work, and to think through ideas and challenges.

We all need time to rest and recharge, but introverts especially do, both for their productivity and their own happiness. These are the reasons why staff may want to work quietly or from home. It’s not because they’re unsocial or difficult.

The office is over-stimulating

An environment with (to their mind) excess noise and stimulation is stressful for introverts. What you think of as just background noise – perhaps you don’t even notice it – can be a bombardment on their senses that they can’t ignore, or handle.

It’s not just introverts: in the survey mentioned above, noise and privacy loss were identified as the two main sources of workplace dissatisfaction – for everyone.

Susan Cain says an introvert is likely to feel overwhelmed and ultimately burnt out if they are dealing with constant environmental stimulants and digital distractions.

They may not show it or say anything (they’re introverts!), so you can be unaware. But it can have them on the edge of their seat and put them in a constant fight-or-flight state. It’s not conducive to doing their best work, and is a route to stress and anxiety.

What to do: Be aware of how your behaviour impacts on those around you. Perhaps conference calls can be done in a meeting room, music played on headphones rather than out loud, the breakout area positioned away from people’s desks, and designated quiet areas allocated.

You think they can’t lead

Famous introverts. Bill Gates
Successful companies need the skills of both introverts and extroverts, says Bill Gates

It’s a myth that extroverts make better leaders. Bosses don’t necessarily need to be charismatic, big talkers, able to hold a room. Some of the best leaders are introverts.

Famous examples include Bill Gates, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak, Hillary Clinton, Marissa Mayer, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Mahatma Gandhi.

Since everything is not all about them, introverts are more likely to listen other people’s ideas, weigh them up and implement them. As they are better in one-to-one (or one-to-few) situations they can form excellent working relationships and alliances. Other staff can like working for them, because their input and their needs get listened to.

Bill Gates’ advice is that you need both introverts’ and extroverts’ skills in order to have a company that thrives both in deep thinking and going out to sell the idea. If you’re an introvert, he says, “better hire some extroverts!”

What to do: Don’t overlook people’s management potential just because they’re not the big personalities or don’t speak up in meetings. There is very often a place for business decisions made after quiet reflection and analysis of facts and data, rather than ones based on hunches and the loudest voices.

Make one-to-one time to talk to them and find out what their strengths, desires, ideas and ambitions are. You might be surprised what you find out!

Jacqui Gibbons is the editor of High50’s health channel, edits beauty and lifestyle features, and writes about health trends. Twitter @Jacqui_Gibbons