Elbow Room and Open Doors: Introvert- and Extrovert-Friendly Workspaces

Would you rather work in a Batcave or a trading pit? What’s the middle ground? “There’s much talk about open spaces and constant collaboration—things that would stress out the introvert,” says David Herron, one of my readers in Dallas. He asks, “What would the ideal startup office look like if it was designed by an introvert whose staff consisted of both introverts and extroverts*?” Great question. I will take a crack at it for startups as well as more established organizations.

What an introvert needs
“I perform best when I have long stretches of uninterrupted, quiet time and space to think,” says Herron, who is planning a music memorabilia business with a partner he describes as “very extroverted.” Herron continues, “My ideal workspace would feature some type of Batcave-like place I could retreat to when I needed to think and work on the big stuff.”

Amy Kelly, a senior project manager and financial analyst at a medical devices company in the Denver area adds, “I love my workspace because it’s away from all the hustle and bustle on my floor.” She continues, “I sit on the very edge of the floor space. Coworkers try to get me to move to the middle of the floor so I ‘won’t be alone,’ and of course, I refuse to move.” Kelly says, “I loathe what I call ‘drive-by socializing and distractions,’ and my location keeps me out of that. I think not being subjected to people dropping by a lot is one of the keys to workspace happiness for an introvert.”

Knuckle to knuckle, knee to knee
In contrast to Herron’s and Kelly’s ideal workspaces, an introvert we’ll call Tara Jung says, “My workspace is so tight that my neighbor and I bump hands when we mouse.” Herron adds, “You have to be ranked pretty high in a company to have a dedicated quiet space like a private office.” In fact, Jung, a director of client strategy at a major Wall Street firm, works on a trading floor, and her desk shares one long contiguous surface with the other workers—including her boss—who all work knuckle to knuckle and knee to knee. Fortunate for the sphinx-link Jung, she can concentrate amid the crammed chaos.

“I use the seams in the linoleum and on the carpet as a demarcation between my space and my neighbors’,” says Jung. “I’m careful to keep my files on my side.” Are her neighbors as careful? “Sometimes I nudge their files back over the line,” she adds. “Also, I set up a little ‘stadium’—a graduated file organizer—on one side of my desk to create a physical barrier between me and a neighbor.”

Herron shares that the closest he’s come to workplace hell was a job he once had as a receptionist in a gym. “I was constantly bombarded with checking people in to a facility, and answering calls and questions,” he says. How did Herron manage as an introvert? He would occasionally sneak away into his boss’s office or leave the building for a quick walk. I suspect that he didn’t invite half the spinning class to join him.

Adele Finer, an architect based in New York City, shares that introverts have other ways of “closing the door”—even when there’s no physical door to close. She says that some introverts can concentrate in their own personal “computer bubbles,” and, in some environments, take refuge by engaging in their iPods and Blackberrys. “Headphones can make cubicle life bearable at times,” adds Herron. He continues, “With the right music and expression, people kind of understand that you may be in a zone at the moment and prefer not to be interrupted.”

What an extrovert needs
What’s an ideal workspace for the more garrulous half of the population? Bryan Janeczko, an extrovert and founder of WickedStart, which offers a step-by-step approach to helping upstart businesses get off the ground, says, “a desk or workstation that’s part of a well lighted, colorful, and open floor plan with immediate access to colleagues and associates.” He continues, “This would provide for easy, constant interaction, socialization, and conversation.”

“For offices,” he adds, “I would encourage glass walls so you can see what’s going on and stay connected to everyone and everything in the office. The goal of the extrovert environment is to provide a flow of energy that’s up-tempo—constantly moving. Think bull pen at a newspaper or on a trading floor.” Just thinking about it makes me shrink! Janeczko elaborates, “For an extrovert, a shockingly quiet environment—with private, individual white walled offices combined with little to no interaction with others on a regular basis throughout the day would be equivalent to Dante’s ‘Inferno.’”

Accommodating introverts and extroverts
How can you accommodate introverts, who need their down time to refuel, and extroverts who get their energy from socializing? Finer says that she hasn’t heard architects—whom she says are typically introverts—or clients address this question. Instead, “The client most often needs to use space as efficiently as possible,” she says.

“Shared spaces or multi-purpose rooms would be the starting point,” she says. Finer continues, “Enclosed conference rooms of several sizes could serve as break-out rooms for groups of people that need to gather independently and who would otherwise disturb their introverted co-workers. The smaller rooms could also act as refuges for those who may need some time alone to gather their thoughts before presentations, or for smaller, more private meetings.”

Janeczko, an entrepreneur who has run several successful businesses and who is also a client of mine, recommends offering offices or workstations that are private to introverts as well as a partially open floor plan that encourages socializing to foster the extroverts’ spirit. He says that this type of environment can nurture “the creative genius within both introverts and extroverts to develop innovative business ideas and solve business challenges—plus, you’ll have a happier workforce.”

Ins and outs of cubicles
What about the all-pervasive cubicle? “A huge consideration in large open offices is the height of the cubicle partitions,” says Finer. “They should be low enough to give a sense of spatial openness and to allow borrowed natural or general light to filter through the space.”

Interior designer Lisa Bianco-Cheung points out that the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, better known as LEED, certifies the construction of  “green buildings” and “places a height restriction on workstations that also adds to the openness of office planning.” She continues, “Of course, all of this creates a privacy issue and a challenging work environment for employees who are introverted or whose work type requires very focused concentration.”

Finer adds that cubicle partitions should be high enough so that office workers can comfortably speak in normal tones during telephone conversations without feeling like the entire office is eavesdropping. She says that the material of the partitions should be chosen for acoustic value as well. Indeed, I’ve noticed the difference in spaces that are carpeted and have lots of soft, sound absorbing materials, versus hard, noisy everything, as in most popular restaurants in big cities.

Bianco-Cheung shares that another way to add a sense of privacy for cubicle dwellers is “through the creative use of vertical elements in the form of panels, overhead storage and shelving, screens, and curtains.” Finer adds that these can serve as visual and sound barriers as well.

Mountain to your back
Ann Bingley Gallops, an expert in feng shui, an ancient Chinese approach to creating a harmonious environment inspired by elements of nature, describes the importance of having “the mountain to your back” to create a sense of security in your workspace. In cubicle land or in a more traditional office, the mountain could simply be a wall behind you.

What do you do if you’re assigned to a space that leaves you completely exposed, with coworkers coming up from behind you all day? Gallops recommends putting a mirror on your desk or on the wall in front of you to reflect people approaching you from behind.

Signs and electric fans
Gallops also recommends “A small, possibly humorous ‘do not disturb’ sign for your office door or the back of your chair.” She adds, “I’ve seen people use signs from hotel rooms that say things like, ‘Privacy please,’ with great success. It gets the message across while bringing a smile to people’s faces.”

Gallops also suggests posting a sign with your office hours. This could work for introverts, who need long stretches of uninterrupted time to concentrate, and for extroverts, whose office hours would clearly be longer. Lastly, Gallops suggests, “a small fan to place under your desk or table to create white noise and the feeling that you’ve created a little ‘bubble-like’ effect around yourself.”

In more intimate settings, like upstarts such as the one Herron is planning, consider this snippet from my book, Self-Promotion for Introverts®: “We position little Post-It flags on the tops or sides of our laptops—in the style of an old taxi meter—to signal to one another when we’re available to talk versus when we’re deep in thought.” I was referring to when my boyfriend and I are at a cafe working on our respective projects. I also wear earplugs sometimes.

For startups
Janeczko adds a special consideration for startups—especially those that are bootstrapping. “You’ll be lucky if you even have one office to begin with.” He says that you may need to “squeeze three or four people into it, so personal space and privacy would definitely be compromised.” He continues, “In this startup situation, it’s best to allow introverts to work from home or in some other low key and quiet location for the majority of the time. This will enable their productivity to skyrocket.” Ditto for introverts in established organizations.

“However,” he adds, “it’s important to maintain team cohesion. So having regularly scheduled staff meetings and get-togethers is essential.” Striking a balance between business needs and the personalities of your staff is critical. After all an introvert’s threshold for socializing is quite different from an extrovert’s. Tip for introverts: rest up and prepare for meetings. Tip for extroverts: get your social fix before and after meetings.

Finer adds that flexibility is key when designing a workspace. She says that you want to create a space that accommodates future growth. “Use furniture that can be reconfigured as much as possible instead of built-ins.” Also, she says, “You want to make sure there are enough power and data ports.”

What now?
Herron shares that he values “the magic that can happen when a small group with a common goal in mind gets together to figure out a problem.” He adds that he prefers to work in a quiet space with “the option of occasionally working with others in a more open setting.” Folks like Janeczko will be there to welcome him. Note to the Herron’s of the world: prepare to brainstorm with the Janeczko’s. Note to the Janeczko’s: let the Herron’s know in advance what’s on your agenda and, despite your enthusiasm, count to three in your head so the Herron’s can express their thoughts at their own pace. Here’s to a work environment we can build together and share harmoniously.


For more tips on introverts and extroverts thriving together in the workplace, check out  the chapter titled “The World According to Jo(e) Extrovert” in my book.

*Also spelled “extraverts” by Carl Jung and the communities of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and other personality assessments such as the Five Factor Model.

© Copyright 2010 Nancy Ancowitz

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