Thriving in open space as an introvert

Most of us cut our teeth in a business world where you at least had a cubicle wall between you and your co-worker. Picture it: you finally reach the point where you are about to get your own office, you’ve watched others get an office, you’ve pined for an office. You’ve picked out the wall color, the pictures, the plant you will put on your desk, and as you start to pack up your cubicle your boss calls you into her own office to tell you, “We are moving to open space!”

At first, you think it is a big joke, or a fad. Of course, they will read the recent articles citing open space doesn’t work for everyone1, but NO, they don’t and you have a new reality. A reality that includes listening to Bertha next to you make cooing sounds over the phone to her poodle or Harvey giving a description of a very embarrassing problem to his doctor. Welcome - you have arrived in the land of Open Space!

Many corporate cultures are perceived to reward extroverts2. This can force introverts to play the game, appear more extroverted than they really are in their core. What has enabled you to be able to do this was those cubicle walls around you, your respite, and the hope of someday having an office with real office walls and a door that closes.

Before you totally freak out, realize this is manageable and may even become enjoyable if you can learn to work with your own personality and the personality of those around you.

One of the “Big 5”3 personality traits is extroversion4. The trait measures the degree to which you are introverted or extroverted. Most people fall somewhere between the two. Extroversion describes how you interact with people. People who are high in extroversion (extroverts) are outgoing and energetic, while people who are low in extroversion (introverts) are more inward focused, and typically require time to recharge from social interaction.

In a 2015 study by Oseland5, it was confirmed that people who scored highly for introversion and neuroticism were more affected by noise than people who scored low on either variable. In this study, when all participants were asked specifically how noise affects the ability to work, a significant three-quarters of the respondents reported that they are negatively affected by the noise in their workplace. Only 10% of participants thought that acoustics in their workplace had a positive effect on their performance. In addition, the study showed that a choice of working environments is required to suit different activities and personalities.

Apply these tips to thrive in the open space environment:

1. Aim for flexibility - If you are a leader in this environment, consider some freedom for your employees. Not everyone thrives in this environment. Some will get distracted; some will be distractors, while others will flourish. Knowing who needs what is key. As an employee, approach your manager, and in a positive manner ask for some flexibility and explain why you need it. Convey that you are excited to try this new environment and you have created a plan to maximize your engagement. Introverts tend to be thinkers; they often need quiet spaces to contemplate and to crank out work. While extroverts think out loud; they often talk through something before they pen it. This means that introverts could struggle in an open environment if they are not given that flexibility. Flexibility could mean work from home days each week, privacy pods to take calls from, or to think through projects, or the ability to use the resources available in the community. One company has allowed workers to go to the library next door when they need to research a project, not because the library has resources, but because it is quiet.

2. Perception is Reality - Tread carefully! In open space environments, people that are seen tend to be rewarded. People that are visible tend to be believed to be doing work, while those who are not seen, tend to be dismissed. In actuality, personality science confirms that different personalities need different environments to thrive. An

open environment can be very draining for someone who is a strong introvert. When you are in the office make those moments count, make certain the right people see you and that you can highlight the work you may be tackling at home, in the private pod, or the local library.

3. Take care of yourself - Introverts require some quite time to recharge while extroverts require socialization to recharge. As an introvert, you need that time. For someone who is in that open environment all day, coming home to a busy house or a second job at night can be overwhelming. Build in quiet time for yourself. This could mean spending two hours in open space and then hiding away for 10 minutes in a quiet corner of the cafeteria while you recharge your battery. It could mean that you turn off the radio on your drive home and have some quiet car time or sit in your car at lunch for a break. Take care of yourself and give yourself that time to decompress.

4. Get practical - Try to find innovative approaches to the environment. Let your manager know that you might like to wear headphones to cancel out some noise so that you can think. Be careful to use this for only part of the day. If you have them on all day you can risk the perception of not being a team player, so limit the time frame.

5. Ask to have quiet times - Noise can cause distraction at work6. Set aside a few key slots during your day to find a quiet place to work. If you can disappear into a pod for an hour or two you can accomplish amazing amounts of work because you have the peace and quiet to focus on it.

6. Shift your hours - Could you shift your hours an hour or so in either direction? It may not be possible, although if you can, you may be able to get into the office early and start working before it is full. This will give you that quiet time you need to properly focus.

7. Don’t eat at your desk - You need a break from that open environment and lunch is the perfect time. Lunch with a friend outside the office can help you recharge, or go for a walk, a ride in your car. Just sit in a quiet place and recharge!

Thriving in any environment means taking care of yourself. It is important to know your personality and what you need to make it work. Give yourself permission to figure that out.

Welcome to the land of open space! I’d love to hear your experience with open space in the comments below. How did you make it work for you?

Shelly O’Donovan is the principal of Illuminate the Message, LLC. She can be found at Shelly is an expert in non-verbal communication and personality. She draws from real-world experience and world-class training helping healthcare executives use body language to increase effectiveness in sales, negotiations, communication, and relationships. Shelly has an MPA from the University of Pennsylvania, a Marketing certification from Wharton School (of UPENN), and a BA in political science from Millersville University.

Shelly O'Donovan