The modern workplace doesn’t work for introverts, and that’s an expensive problem

The office.
The office.
Image: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
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When I was a both a new mother and budding entrepreneur, I often had to pump while meeting clients at their offices. When I finally found the “wellness” room, I can’t tell you how many times it was already occupied by someone seeking refuge from an open office plan. Even the conference rooms would often be filled by people who’d reserved them just to work in peace.

As a mother, I was frustrated. As an introvert, I could understand this desire to retreat into private space.

Some of us thrive on office life: the group projects, the plentiful birthday cake, the conference calls, the palace intrigue. But some people need space to work.

But for many, the modern professional office can create overwhelming sensory overload. Autism blogs are full of articles on how to cope with it, but you don’t need to be on the spectrum to feel jolted by the noise, hum, and aggressive lighting. Digital overload adds another layer. With Slack, Instagram, email, Facebook, and texting, you can be assaulted by employees on three platforms at the same time, even while they’re sitting three desks away.

Being a workplace introvert has been a struggle my entire career. Early on, the office politics, the hours, the pace, the networking, and the rules of getting ahead rubbed up against my very temperament. By the time I was 30, I had already quit nine jobs.

Finally, I quit for the final time. I realized it didn’t matter how great the work was. I was allergic to the ubiquitous fluorescent overhead lights. They gave me migraines. And as long as I had to show up and sit under those lights for ten-plus hours, I could never be happy.

Now, I’m what I call a hermit entrepreneur. I often work from bed. I turn off the phone. I pull back from social media. This doesn’t mean I’m not a hard worker: it means I need autonomy, alone time, and freedom to thrive.

Unfortunately, people like me can pay a real price. Some firms report more introverted associates are less frequently promoted to partner, not because they are less skilled, but because they are less gregarious and less typically “out there” salespeople.

Businesses pay a real price, too. The beloved open-plan offices do encourage transparency, but a recent meta-analysis of open-plan workers found that open office spaces cause conflict, high blood pressure, and increased staff turnover.  At the accounting giant EY, which has now measured retention from a flexibility perspective for a decade, EY Global Flexibility Manager Maryella Gockel has told me the top 25% of teams with the highest levels of flexibility—meaning team members can determine where, when, and how the work gets done—have five points better retention than the bottom 25%.

Disruption also wilts under distraction. Whether it’s being scheduled into endless meetings or simply being expected to be present in a busy office, workers who lack autonomy miss what Silicon Valley leader Paul Graham terms “rich, solitary, germinative time”—the kind of time that helps employees help a company grow.

Pack your company culture with mandated office time, happy hours, and off-site meetings, and you risk alienating introverts. Remove these things completely, and extroverts may feel less energetic. The key is to strive for balance.

First, if you are a leader, ask some introverts on your staff how they’d prefer to connect. Be careful to avoid making office events a marker for commitment to the job. Just because one of your employees leaves right at five doesn’t mean she isn’t committed; she may just need some space.

Second, choose quality, not quantity, for digital presence. Most people complain about being on-call to bosses all the time on their email. Ironically, most introverts say that’s a trade-off they’re willing to make to have a little more flexibility. A boss can rest a bit easier knowing an employee who works at home still will answer emails at 11:30.

Study after study shows that the most engaged and productive workers are those who feel a sense of autonomy and control over their work lives. So, work with your hermits on what works for them. This could be as simple as giving them a day each week to work from home, allowing them to come in a bit later or leave early, or chucking a meeting-heavy culture in favor of creating more “maker time.”

It’s also important to respect invisibility. Whenever I’m with people younger than 35, I marvel at their inability to experience anything significant without documenting the moment on Instagram. This level of communication, sustained all day, is overwhelming. It taxes our cortisol and working memory. For people who need more alone time to think and less constant interaction, posting constantly can really erode the ability to perform meaningful work.

One day, I hope, companies will design work to suit many different temperaments, including neurodiversity and those of us who react strongly to sensory stimulation. Imagine if you got to choose what kind of physical space you worked in every day, just like you might choose your health plan option or office supplies. Someone who needs quiet could be in a quiet space, and the extroverts could all sit around a big table.

And the lactation rooms could be free for people who are actually nursing.

Morra Aarons-Mele is the author of Hiding in the Bathroom:  An Introverts Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) and the founder of Women Online, a social impact digital marketing agency.