Introverts are having a bit of a moment. A major dimension of personality, introversion in the Western world has culturally been regarded as a negative attribute: quiet, shy, aloof and fearful of social interaction. However, experts such as Susan Cain have started to highlight the power of introverts, particularly in the workplace and as leaders.

Thoughtful, self-aware and observant, introverts are more common than you might think, with most estimates at roughly a 50/50 split in the population as a whole.

The best way to think about the extravert/introvert difference is where they get their energy from. An extravert gets their energy from being around people, and find being alone draining. At work they are the ones talking through their ideas in meetings having just thought of it and will prefer to speak to someone in person. Introverts on the other hand get their energy from being alone. This doesn't mean to say they don’t like people; they just find being around others drains their energy, and may need time to recuperate before being social again. They are more likely to send an email, and talk through ideas after coming up with the initial concept alone.

These are preferences, rather than a strict way of operating. This isn't to say introverts can’t be energised by social interaction, or extravert's don’t crave time alone. People are on a spectrum, with the obvious extreme, such as an introvert who will happily talk to no one for months at a time to the extravert's who can never be alone. But most people fall somewhere along this vast spectrum.

Personality and neuroscience

There is some neurological evidence for this difference. Simplified, the theory is that introverts have more of, or are more sensitive to a chemical called dopamine (one of the ‘happy’ chemicals) than extraverts. When we do something new, take risks or experience novelty, we experience a pleasurable feeling. Extravert's’ threshold for stimulation is simply higher. They need more external stimulation, more experiences and more input from others than introverts to reach their over-stimulation limit. This is also mimicked in bodily responses; introverts produce more saliva in response to a smaller amount of lemon juice than extraverts.

extravert man working in busy office

Stress and noise

Introvert’s lower threshold to external stimulus means they reach their over-stimulation threshold more quickly, and may become more stressed as a result. It is well known that excessive noise can increase stress levels, the release of the stress hormone cortisol aggravates related conditions such as high blood pressure and migraines. In addition, excess cortisol limits how well your prefrontal cortex functions. This is the part of your brain which controls planning, reasoning and impulse control – perhaps the reason why you can’t resist that extra doughnut in the office. It also impacts short term memory formation which is key in learning and processing information.

Although habituation (i.e. getting used to it) can occur with continuous noise, the noise of offices conversations is not constant. In a traditional office environment, there is simply nowhere to escape to. We at Morgan Lovell often find that the introverts among us come in early or stay late, preferring the quieter environment. Sometimes they will book out a meeting room and get stuff done there, enjoying solitude in a six-person meeting room, leaving you or other co-workers on the hunt for somewhere to host your ‘important’ meeting.

Personality and office design

However, this is simply not a long-term or cost-effective solution, for employee or employer. The truth is the traditional office is designed for extraverts. The open-plan nature of most offices forces you to overhear conversations and encourages impromptu meetings at desks, while meeting rooms are places of interaction. In this noisy environment, extraverts actually perform very well on both simple tasks such as data entry and complex tasks such as summarising a report. Introverts, on the other hand, don’t. They find it much more difficult to tune out the extra noise and perform poorly on both complex and simple tasks in a noisy environment.

So should we move back to an office model? Well, you then disadvantage extravert's – extraverts perform relatively poorly in quiet environments, while introverts thrive. In fact, even if given explicit instructions to remain quiet and still in a blank room, the extravert simply cannot cope and will often start whistling or finger tapping.

Open plan office design with natural wood
Office design for introverts

The solution – smart solo spaces

So what is the solution? We cannot design one space to fit the needs of both extraverts and introverts. Historic office designs have largely disadvantaged one group – open plan disadvantaged introvert while cubicles disadvantaged extroverts. What we need is a revolution in the way we think about offices from the point of view of the user and we are already starting to witness the rise of the individual perspective in design.

Activity-based working is, of course, one solution. Workers get to choose in what environment they perform their tasks, and have autonomy over the space they choose. However, the spaces we provide need to be smarter. We frequently see quiet spaces that are simply a desk and a chair, often with your back to the door. How do you feel when you walk into this space? Comforted? Safe? Or do you feel watched and uneasy?

Susan Cain has recently started designing spaces with introverts in mind. She believes the key to supporting introverts in these spaces is to have acoustic and visual privacy. However, equally important is providing alternative spaces within the office environment where introverts can concentrate when necessary or simply recharge. These rooms have soft seating, the option for having a visitor, and calming visual touches such as plants. Office design is moving towards understanding how someone feels within a space and the level of stimulation provided by the environment.

Open-plan is cost effective, but could be damaging the wellbeing and productivity of at least half of your workforce. Introverts simply need the option of being alone to perform to the best of their abilities. A space to gather energy at work can allow introverts to interact more effectively with others, and think through those important ideas before presenting them to others. Effective office design needs to cater to both introverts and extroverts.