(This post was originally written for Resonance Consultancy in October 2012)

70% of all offices are open-plan, and companies that use them hope to facilitate collaboration, brainstorming and on-the-spot meetings. But for some, this trend is damaging the very goals it hoped to promote.

In the past year, there’s been an outcry against the forced togetherness of open-plan offices. From the New York Times to Harvard Business Review  to The Atlantic people are challenging the idea that open-plan offices foster creativity and productivity.

In large part, this stems from what has been dubbed the “introvert revolution”. Each of us has a different threshold of stimulation in which we thrive and recharge. At one end are pure introverts, who prefer solitude or one-on-one interaction; at the other end are extroverts, who thrive on the energy created by groups. Between 30% and 50% of all people are introverts – including many, if not most, creatives. Historically, introverts have been told to act more like extroverts – to be more social, lighten up, grow thicker skin. But with this year’s release of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, introverts are (quietly) reclaiming their space.

In the 1970s, companies allotted about 500 square feet per individual. That number has diminished to the point of near-evaporation: From 2010 to 2012, the average square feet per person has gone from 225 to 176 sq. ft. According to separate research by CoreNet and Knoll, by 2017, each individual will have as little as 100 square feet. For introverts, whose personal rallying cry is “Give me space!” this is a setup for personal meltdown and professional failure.

Open-plan offices are less expensive per square foot than their walled or cubicled counterparts; they require less furniture and fewer materials. However, they’re not necessarily more effective – for introverts or extroverts. As Allison Arieff writes in The Atlantic about her experience in open-plan offices, “To be honest, it seemed as if no one ever got anything done.”

In her New York Times editorial, “The Rise of the New Groupthink”, Susan Cain writes: “Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion…And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.” That’s everyone, not just introverts. Open-plan offices are bad for our health.

Even the Harvard Business Review noted that open-plan offices can actually inhibit spontaneous, in-depth conversation – the lack of privacy and fear of being overheard leads to shorter and more superficial interactions. In other words, open-plan offices facilitate distractions rather than productive conversations.

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Gensler research found that “individual focus work” – the heads-down time when things actually get done – has increased from 48% of an individual’s work day in 2007 to 55% in 2012.  Focus work, not incidentally, is the type of work most valued by the top-performing companies; it’s considered 50% more critical than collaboration. Gensler also found that when individuals, regardless of modality, weren’t able to, well, focus on focus work, the other elements of work – collaboration, learning and socialization – also suffered.

There’s evidence, too, that privacy actually makes us more productive. In a study dubbed The Coding War Games, which looked at the productivity of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies – programmers are another highly introverted group – researchers found that 62% of the top performers said they had sufficient privacy; only 19% of the worst performers said the same. 76% of the least-productive programmers said they were often interrupted needlessly, while only 38% of the top performers had the same complaint.

So what’s the solution? In “Caring for Your Office Introvert”, ArchDaily writes about Italian company Vitra’s concept of a “Citizen Office,” which offers zones for collaboration and zones for privacy. The central area is the Office Forum, and from this hub extends a variety of areas that clearly state the level of interaction desired: the Silence Room, Debate Room, Meeting Room, Work Box and Private Box, among others.

Google, eBay and the Gates Foundation are some of the companies that have taken similar approaches, providing “mixed modality” offices that cater to the need for privacy as well as for collaboration.  Which is all well and good if you’ve got a few million to throw into office design, but what’s a regular small or medium business to do?

The solution could be a concept as old as, well, the Internet: Telecommuting. Yes, not having an office at all is the key to productivity, especially from those who need privacy to focus. Working from home also tends to make people happier and more creative, it saves companies money in space and overhead, and it has the potential to transform the environment. (If 40% of the American population worked from home half the time, the nation would save 280 million barrels of oil; it would be the equivalent of taking nine million cars off the road).

Fast Company predicts that by 2020, nearly a third of all people will work remotely, whether from home, project/client sites or customer/partner offices. What’s more, in the next two years, Citrix predicts that 83% of all companies will have adopted mobile work styles – that is, fewer office-based employees.

Telecommuting has been around for a couple of decades, so why should it catch on now, when it hasn’t in the past? Two reasons:

1) Until recently, only a select few could afford laptops – and therefore be truly mobile. With the advent – and ubiquity – of smartphones and tablets, people can (and do) work from anywhere.

2) Force of habit. Today, the workforce includes a larger number of Gen Yers, who were raised on mobile computing and have less psychological attachment to the concept of going to a traditional office. They are particularly drawn to jobs with flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting.

So why aren’t we all telecommuting or working from virtual offices? Perhaps because at least 50% of the population are extroverts, who thrive on substantial contact with other humans – and telecommuting isn’t exactly, well, a day at the office. Besides, it’s useful to have a “base camp” for client meetings and other necessary face-to-face interactions.

The definitive solution may be to let employees choose whether or not they work in the office – and when. For extroverts, an open-plan office with offshoot meeting spaces may be ideal. For those in the middle of the range, a quiet spot off the “bullpen” might work – or even the “privacy” afforded by headphones might be enough to let them focus. For those on the extremely introverted end of the continuum, working from home may be the best option, with only occasional forays into the office when necessary.

UPDATE: (May 2014) According to FastCompany, Susan Cain is collaborating with Steelcase to create introvert-friendly work spaces. Introverts the world over are (quietly) cheering.

 

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