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Caring for Your Office Introvert

The Crystal by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects is a typically extroverted office environment.
The Crystal by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects is a typically extroverted office environment.

“this open, ‘collaborative’ environment, where worker drones so nicely sit in poise out in the open while click-clacking on their computers, creates an atmosphere where people become desensitized to being on display. Sitting and thinking is actually frowned upon as being a waste of productivity. Why are you just sitting there? Why are you not talking, or typing, or writing, or drawing, or multitasking?” – Mark Genest, comment on “In Defense of Introverts” [1] Consider the contemporary office. White floors, minimalist style, no pesky walls getting in the way – just pure, unadulterated openness. From our assembly-line past has emerged an increasingly consumer-oriented world, in which collaboration and gregariousness are valuable commodities. As a result, offices that resemble art galleries – with the employees on display – have become the norm, and while this sociable environment is energizing for the extrovert, for the introvert, it’s crippling. In my last article, “In Defense of Introverts,” I posited that learning modalities, which better incorporate our introverted brethren, could revolutionize classroom design. In this one, I expand the concept to that of working modalities: an answer for office design that would engender an office culture sensitive to introverted rhythms and – at last – expand the way we conceive of creativity and innovation as a purely extroverted enterprise.

Choose Your Modality. This is the saying that inspired The School of One, a pilot program in New York City that uses an algorithm to track student progress and suggest the optimal learning style, or modality (small-group instruction, individual learning, online learning, etc.), for each student. In this type of classroom, the design must allow for space to be subdivided into areas that best serve each modality, and thus cater to both extroverted and introverted personality types. In her brilliant TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts,” Susan Cain explains how this is best attained: “extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments the key then to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.” [2] In contrast to a school, in a workplace of creative-thinking adults, an algorithm would not be necessary to determine which environment best serves the individual. And herein lies the key to a successful workplace design: the freedom to choose between introverted and extroverted environments. Now, I would emphasize that every business requires its own particular balance of spatial arrangements for the kind of work that occurs within it, be it more collaborative or individual. However, an office that offers a variety of space gives its workers the freedom to transition between them, providing for extroverted and introverted working styles and encouraging creativity/productivity in all its forms. Office Citizens

On the forefront of introvert-inclusion is Vitra: a design company that conceives of the workplace as a living city whose workers are its citizens. In this concept, the Citizen Office is centered around the Office Forum, from which branches out different kinds of areas: the Silence Room, Debate Room, Meeting Room, Work Box, Private Box, etc. Just from reading the names, we begin to see where each space falls within the public-private spectrum, and what’s more, within the extrovert-introvert spectrum. The Office Forum, resembling a small plaza with lots of open space and seating to facilitate the casual exchange of ideas, is quintessentially extroverted. But the Box, an enclosed, private space that limits stimulation (and provides acoustic as well as visual separation), is quintessentially introverted, providing the structure for more individual work. The strength of Vitra’s concept is that it gives you the choice: “A Citizen Office In a Citizen Office the employees decide which rhythm, form and location is right for their respective activity.” From that initial space of interaction, you can verge off on your own and then – most importantly – wander back to your colleagues to share the outcome. [3] Google City

© LAVA. This design for a Classroom of the Future would easily incorporate different learning modules.
© LAVA. This design for a Classroom of the Future would easily incorporate different learning modules.

Perhaps there is no better physical manifestation of the Citizen Office concept than Google’s iconic Zurich Headquarters. The plans for the office resulted from a detailed survey of its workers – its “Zooglers” – to determine the kind of workspaces they required.  The result was an office that truly operates as a self-contained city, providing for every facet of employee life. The survey revealed that “the optimal working environment for Zooglers needed to be diverse and at the same time harmonious whilst making it a fun and an enjoyable place to work in. The survey also showed that while personal workspace needed to be functional and more neutral, communal areas had to offer strong visual and more aesthetically enjoyable and entertaining qualities to stimulate creativity, innovation and collaboration.” [4] While Zooglers prioritized dispersed communal spaces – you can even slide down fire poles to quickly get from one floor’s communal space to another’s – the workers demanded a diversity of space where functional and neutral workstations for the individual coexist with aesthetic and socially stimulating spaces for groups. In this varied environment, collaboration can be the focus, but the needs of the introvert are not forgotten. A Pea in a Pod 

Vitra's Work Box provides audio-visual separation that facilitates individual work
Vitra's Work Box provides audio-visual separation that facilitates individual work

    While Google’s exorbitant budget and playful idea of space – from giant eggs to taxi cabs – is not attainable or even desirable in most office environments, the concepts behind them – the necessity of choice and the creation of clearly defined spaces – can be accomplished in other ways. Using Vitra as a point of reference, furniture and color can separate introverted from extroverted spaces (as in eBay’s themed office spaces, which houses “Think” rooms for individuals as well as public “Huddle” and “Project Work” spaces for collaboration). The inclusion of introverted space could also be built into the building: the “pods” of Bishan’s public library, suspended nooks that provide private space away from a building’s interior, for example; or the dynamic three-winged offices of KBP West that have acoustically sealing folding doors and isolated meeting structures, adaptable to the creation of more introverted space within offices.

Meeting Spaces in Google's Zurich Headquarters.
Meeting Spaces in Google's Zurich Headquarters.

While these offices are not yet the norm, there does seem to be a paradigm shift, an “Introvert Revolution,” gathering steam that would necessitate such re-conceptualizations of office space. Perhaps “we have swung the pendulum too far in the extrovert direction,” but I don’t think Introverts will have to wait much longer for the pendulum to slow. With so many crises facing us, our extroverted-world needs profound, innovative ideas (and spaces conducive to producing those ideas) if we are to survive. The Introvert is due for a glorious return.   References *The title is a play off of Jonathan Rauch’s touchstone piece “Caring For Your Introvert.” The Atlantic. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/2696/> Quirk, Vanessa. “In Defense of Introverts.” ArchDaily. <http://www.archdaily.com/215055/in-defense-of-introverts/#comment-1896225> Cain, Susan. “The Power of Introverts.” TED Talks. <http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html> “The Citizen Office.” Vitra. <http://www.vitra.com/en-gb/office/citizen-office-the-productive-office/>.  Saieh , Nico . “Google EMEA Engineering Hub / Camezind Evolution” ArchDaily. <http://www.archdaily.com/41400>

© Patrick Bingham-Hall The "pods" of Bishan's Public Library provide introverted spaces.
© Patrick Bingham-Hall The "pods" of Bishan's Public Library provide introverted spaces.

© Richard Barnes. The KBP West Offices by Jensen & Macy Architects offers a balance of extroverted and introverted elements in its design.
© Richard Barnes. The KBP West Offices by Jensen & Macy Architects offers a balance of extroverted and introverted elements in its design.

Cite:Vanessa Quirk. "Caring for Your Office Introvert" 13 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accesed . <http://www.archdaily.com/215703/caring-for-your-office-introvert/>