Discovering the meaning of “introvert” in high school was, to this day, one of the biggest moments of clarity in my life. I knew I wasn’t shy. I knew I didn’t have social anxiety. I knew I wasn’t timid or afraid to share my thoughts.
But I did know that I sought more alone time and quietude than others. No matter how much I enjoyed (and still enjoy) being around people, I found that I needed extra time to recharge and reflect after social events or a full day of interactions.
It was a huge relief to finally have a way to describe myself: an introvert. (In case you’re curious, I’m an ISTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality spectrum.)
Knowing this has helped me understand why I act in certain ways and how I might respond to different situations. In school, for example, I nearly always did homework in my room because I knew that the constant stimuli in common spaces—or even in the library—would drain my mental juices more than the homework itself.
The professional working world has exposed and challenged my introversion more than anything else, though.
When I graduated college, I joined an amazing start-up company in Boston. Over the past two years I’ve been fortunate enough to watch the company grow and to work with some of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever met…
…in an environment that doesn’t exactly cater to introversion: the open-plan office.
From communal desks to music playing over the speakers, we have so many of the office features and perks you think of when you hear “start-up.” No doubt, these things are an important and valuable part of our company culture.
The only problem is that—like many introverts—my job involves a lot of writing and deep thinking. Which is hard to accomplish given the constant chatter, noise, and distractions in an open office.
Much has been written about the challenges that introverts face in an open-plan office (“Why the Open-Plan Office Can Be Devastating for Introverts”; “Saving Introverts From the Soul-Destroying Open-Plan Office”). Those titles are a bit dramatic, but I can relate to the arguments raised and the growing body of research about the disadvantages of open-plan offices.
It’s not a lost cause, though! I’ve been able to shuffle around and adjust my work habits to make the open-plan office work for me.
Here’s how I tailor my days to be more productive in an extroverted environment:
- I always try to be one of the first people in the office. That means I have 45 minutes to an hour to get started on my to-do list before the office fills up and the phones start ringing.
- I reserve writing and other high-concentration tasks for the mornings. As the day moves on, meetings and social interactions can completely sap my energy and my ability to think creatively. (This happens to everyone, but I suspect it’s even more drastic for introverts.) That’s why I devote the first chunk of my day to activities that require the most mental energy and focus. For me, that’s writing.
- I’m not hesitant to work from home if I need to complete a project without distractions. Luckily, the company I work for allows us to work remotely when needed. I definitely take advantage of this when I know I have a full day of writing ahead of me (and no meetings scheduled for the day).
- I do all of my brainstorming and problem-solving outside of the office, on my own time. Conventional thinking suggests that open, collaborative offices foster creativity, but research actually shows that solitude leads to greater creativity. This couldn’t be more true for me. My best ideas don’t come in group brainstorming sessions. (Oh, the pitfalls of the group brainstorm… that’s a topic for another day.) My best ideas come when I’m alone. If I have a thorny problem to solve or a brainstorming task at hand, my best move is to step away from the office, relax, and carve out my own space to think. Usually my couch on a Sunday 🙂
- Worst case, I leave my desk and re-locate to a space in the office where people likely won’t walk by or interrupt me. Many articles about open-plan offices recommend wearing headphones to signal that you don’t want to be disturbed, but that hasn’t quite caught on as a social “contract” in my office. And that’s fine! If there’s something I really need to crank through, I’ll abandon my desk and find a remote spot in the office to work. Of course, that means losing my incredible dual-screen desk setup—but it’s totally worth the tradeoff.
This isn’t an exhaustive list and certainly doesn’t cover every aspect of being an introvert in the workplace. I could write a whole other post on how to contribute to meetings or how to approach presentations/public speaking as an introvert.
Still, I hope this is helpful to all of my fellow introverts out there. And if you’re an extrovert, I hope this has shed some light on how to best collaborate with your introverted colleagues.
We’ll all be happier, more successful, and more productive if we can support, respect, and create space in our workplaces for different personalities.