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Has the open plan office left the building?

28 Jul 2015, Posted by Leah Barnard in Latest News

Extroverts’ make-up almost 50 percent of the workforce who thrive in the hustle and bustle of an energetic open plan office, but what about the other half?

The open plan office comes with many benefits for all to enjoy but it also has its downfalls, starting with the basic needs and requirements of the introvert personality type, which account for one-third to half of the population.

Introverts; we all know them, have worked with them, went to school with them, socialise with them, and you might even be one. According to Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Thinking”, introverts are known as quiet individuals who shy away from the limelight and who have difficulties working in a team. They struggle to reach their full potential in the modern workplace because they are placed in physical and cultural environments that tend to favour their counterpart – the extrovert.

Introverts radiate astonishing strengths including originality, innovation, focus and even leadership. More sensitive to external stimuli than extroverts, the introvert has to face an even more exhausting active day, often seeking an hour or two away from their social colleagues to work effectively.

Osorio Ramos, Managing Director of South Africa’s largest workspace specialists firm, Giant Leap, has worked with blue-chip companies such as Volkswagen, Red Bull and Dulux, where he has seen the great open plan phenomenon infiltrate our South African shores.

“Open plan offices are renowned for their magical ways of breaking traditional hierarchal structures, increasing collaboration, boosting creativity and reducing overall space costs. The shift, however, has left introverts to adopt exerted behaviours in order to endure their new company cultures”.

“Every company has introverts. South African companies that value diverse thinking need to fully leverage all of their employees.

Ramos has seen a new breed of open plan workspaces evolve, defined as a middle-ground where both types can work and play in balance and harmony. “A recent space that incorporated these principles was Grant Thornton. We created an environment that accommodates both the introvert and extrovert with open plan areas shared with private break-away zones, quiet rooms and clever ‘phone booths’ for when employees and staff need some alone time. The quiet rooms also vary in size, ranging from large to small, which can comfortably seat just two to three people”.

Ramos continues by saying that the open plan office shift is about acknowledging the differences in people. It’s about providing spaces that recognise staff and employees by their personality type, and not just their job title.

So how can companies help introverts do their best in today’s typical open plan office? Here are some tips to help create a balanced space for both worker types:

  1. Staff should be allowed to detach and isolate themselves: employees should be able to break-away when needed to concentrate without disruption
  2. It’s about sensory equilibrium – here workers can take control of their sensory stimulation rather than being a victim of sensory overload
  3. Interaction etiquette: allowing staff to decide on when interaction should be limited, this can be done with desk flags for when certain staff are on deadline etc
  4. Psychological privacy and safety: by giving staff a choice of areas to be seen, or not, by their colleagues
  5. Consider incorporating individual furniture items such as AngelShack’s Speak-Easy Booth which provides acoustic foam, internal lighting and sensor air conditioning, allowing staff to take private calls without having to leave the office
  6. User control over their environment: by giving employees a certain amount of control in their workspace, from noise, temperature to lighting.

Ramos does not predict that there will be a mad rush back to the corner style office, since very few are reluctant to give up their open plan office completely, but in order to save space, increase employee communication and cut on costs we need to design workplaces that provide introverts and extroverts with  private and public environments. He continues to say that the modern workspace is about finding solutions to the paradoxes of the open plan office, for example – we all want collaboration among staff, but the open-plan layout can also inhibit personal bonding for the fear of being overheard.

Ten signs you are an extrovert:

  1. You find being alone boring and depressing
  2. When someone hurts your feelings, you share it with everyone
  3. You like to describe yourself as friendly and enthusiastic
  4. You express your thoughts better in conversations than in writing
  5. In your spare time, you like keeping yourself busy with a big schedule of activities
  6. In childhood, you see yourself playing with and making new friends, running around, and talking too much
  7. People say you are a good talker
  8. When going out, you come back feeling energized and accomplished.
  9. You find competition exciting and stimulating
  10. When you have a conversation, you prefer to be light-hearted rather than practical.

“South African corporates definitely favour the open plan layout. Senior management and decision makers need to remember that closed spaces are also needed to counteract the open in order to accommodate the introvert, and ultimately give half our workforce a sense of control and choice in their environment and surroundings”.