It doesn't come naturally, but I'll be upfront: I'm an introvert. Some of my best friends are introverts. At the Ministry of Calm we love introverts. We're everywhere. But many of us struggle to perform at our best when at work.
US author Susan Cain in her bestselling book Quiet, looked at how us calm types (who make up over a third of the workforce) bring valuable balance to the hearty collaborative culture of large open plan workspaces - but only if the working conditions enable us to fulfil our potential.
Personal Space - Inside and Out
The thing to bear in mind with introverted people is that they need time alone to revive. Where extroverts draw energy from their interactions with others, introverts are drained by them. But today most offices are open plan, to promote creative co-working (and fit in more desks). Creating cubbyholes helps, though often organisations don't like breaking up their spaces. As discussed in a previous blog, sometimes introverted people end up sitting in the toilet, finding it the only place they can get some alone time
Of course this doesn't mean different types can't work together, just that organisations should think harder about individual needs. Cue Susan Cain's collaboration with US furniture manufacturer Steelcase, which entailed research that revealed 95% of workers desired privacy at work. I love her thoughtful solution - a stylish collection of pre-designed rooms) that let workers recharge or work however they need to.
For our recent office redesign for a UK charity we addressed the needs of introverts in a number of ways. Firstly we designed the office with a series of desk islands; rather than long rows of desks. Workstations are clustered together in L shapes with raised plant holders in the middle to give a touch more privacy/personal space and reduce noise (Research shows that having plants in the workspace increases creativity and improves people's wellbeing.) We also designed in a variety of different working areas, including work bars and break out/chill out areas where people could get away from the busier parts of the office when they felt the need to recharge.
Retreat > Recharge > Return
Without somewhere to recharge and return from refreshed, introverts can be more vulnerable to workplace stress and illness. Some companies are increasingly prioritising employee wellbeing, notably in the tech sector where swathes of the workforce spend eons glued to screens.
Unsurprisingly, the more successful a company is, the more enlightened it is in this respect. Google, Facebook, Twitter and eBay are streets ahead with in-office meditation classes, spiritual training sessions, mindfulness coaches and dedicated retreat spaces.
Beyond the tech sector, the focus placed on workers' psychological health by companies such as legal heavyweights Mishcon de Reya and financiers Hitachi Capital is landing them on the Sunday Times List of 100 Best Companies to Work For. Where they lead, may others (calmly) follow!
Wellbeing At Work - An Introvert's Guide
So if a) you don't have a coat peg at one of the biggies above and b) your noisy office isn't quietening down anytime soon, take responsibility for your own wellbeing at work. Aren't you the best person to decide what you need?
One of my introvert friends is graphic designer Mike, who works in an open plan office for a charity with a staff of around 1000. The overwhelming all-go culture led him to focus so intently on work tasks it began to negatively affect his health. Here are his tips for making sure you get out of your head and into your body enough to be calm and productive at work.
• Speak Up
Mike sat down with his manager and an HR rep to devise a plan that would allow him to work in a way that suits his natural inclinations, enabling him to perform at his best. Now, regular breaks and quiet time - and making sure he takes enough - are on the agenda at 1-to-1s with his manager.
• Take Breaks
Pace yourself and plan ahead for time out. It's easier to build regular breaks into your day than you might think. If you're due a break, go and speak to a colleague rather than emailing them. Mike also uses the Time Out app to remind him to take regular micro-breaks. Simply standing up from your desk and having a stretch and looking away from your screen for 20 seconds every ten minutes can make a real difference and won't cut into your schedule. Plus he takes a longer break of 5 minutes every hour when he gets up and takes a walk around the building. "It takes discipline as I'm usually working to a tight deadline" says Mike, "but I often come back with a new perspective on a creative project as well as an energy boost".
• Keep At It
Don't get sucked back in. It takes the average person over two months to turn behaviour into a habit. So be disciplined and keep going, because the benefits will be noticeable all round. The idea that working longer hours with fewer breaks makes you more productive is a myth. Resist the temptation to skip a micro-break. And ignore that inner voice that might say others are judging you (or even those who actually are). Fact: you will deliver better results if you take care of your needs.
Things aren't perfect for Mike: "I still run into problems. Outside our office's 'designated' quiet space - a tiny room - there's a sign saying people can use it for meetings, but they should vacate if it's needed for prayer or quiet. I find it a challenge to ask people to leave so I can meditate and so often just walk away". But he's looking after himself, and producing better work as a result.
Calling fellow introverts! What do you or your company do to help you perform to your best at work?