The Introvert's Corner

How to live a quiet life in a noisy world

The Introvert-Friendly Office

Environment can help or hinder introverts' productivity

I recently visited the Hallmark Cards campus in lovely Kansas City. As you might imagine, a business that relies heavily on artists and writers is well-populated with introverts, so the company hired me to do a presentation, and I met with executives in the art and writing departments about keeping introverted employees happy and productive.

One of the things we discussed at length was the physical plant—the introvert-friendliness of the offices themselves.

I’ve actually always wanted to visit the Hallmark offices, and they were just as lively and interesting as I’d always imagined, with lots of artwork and whimsy everywhere. The research library is full of children’s books, books about holidays, art books, magazines—anything fun that might help trigger creativity. The building has lots of big windows, and couches and armchairs cluster here and there.

The work spaces are essentially cubicle farms. We discussed open floor plan offices, which we agreed are tough on introverts, who struggle to be productive amidst office hubbub. But one of the supervisors recounted a conversation with an extrovert who’d said that she also had trouble concentrating in an open floor plan office because she had to fight the urge to join the hubbub. In fact, a recent study by a design firm confirms that nobody really likes the open office plan. After all, collaboration is just one aspect of productivity. Then there’s the shut-up-and-work part.

Hallmark appears to be an introvert-friendly environment in many ways; both women I met with are introverts and sensitive to what introverts need, such as a quiet room, where anyone can go and close the door. And employees have developed their own ways of getting head space—one woman put a curtain across her cubicle. Perhaps not as effective as a door for screening out noise, but it is a signal that she needs to focus.

Some other thoughts and ideas for an introvert-friendly office:

  • Introverts tend to be sensitive to too much sensory stimulation so they may want to situate their desks in a way that helps them screen out visual distraction. Once upon a time I believed that lots of visual stimulation—a bulletin board above my desk, little souvenirs all over the place—were good for creativity. A few years ago I realized that for me, the opposite was true and I actually work best in serene surroundings. My current office still has plenty of tschotskes, but they are all on a bookshelf behind me when I’m at my desk, which faces a window overlooking the backyard. I try to keep other visual clutter to a minimum. (“Try” is the operative word here. I’m a bit of a clutter magnet.) My office environment feels much less oppressive now.
  • While many offices, like Hallmark’s, have little conversation pits, with sofas and armchairs scattered throughout the building, the supervisors I talked to said people rarely sit in them. So perhaps it would be nice to take some armchairs and set them here and there on their own—preferably by windows with a view—for employees who just need to get away from their desks and ponder, or bring a laptop for a change of scenery while they work.
  • Amidst one cluster of cubicles at Hallmark, a long table was used not only for meetings and collaboration, but also as an “open to talk” signal. In this cluster, if you’re at your desk, you’re not up for conversation. If you sit at the table, you’re fair game.
  • Of course, introverts are good little telecommuters and can be very productive away from the bustle of the office. Hallmark is generous about allowing employees to work at home, but supervisors keep watch to ensure employees who prefer working on site aren’t overburdened by being called upon again and again for last-minute jobs or to put out fires, just because they happen to be there. (So introverts, take note: Too much of a good thing is sometimes not nice. Monitor thyself.)

Introverts, of necessity, have learned and created their own strategies for getting the head space they need to be most productive. However, employers who really want to get the best out of all the different minds they have are wise to take a look around and see what they can do to make their office space introvert-friendly.

Do you have other ideas and strategies for introvert-friendly workspaces?

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Look for my book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. And come hang out on my Facebook page. And maybe check out my Tumblr, The Quiet Traveler

Sophia Dembling is a widely published Dallas, Texas-based writer. Look for her next book, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After, coming in January 2015.

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