For Introverts, the Open Office Concept is Hell on Earth

IntrovertDear.com introvert open office

Anyone who’s ever shared a desk with me will tell you that I’m a miserable tablemate. I’m so easily irritated that, for the most part, I’m cynical and grumpy. As a highly sensitive, anxious introvert (I hit the trifecta!), the constant sensory input that comes with working in an open office leaves me feeling mentally raw.

Raucous laughter, loud discussions about nothing, audible chewing, one-sided telephone conversations, people stomping (yes, stomping) by my desk every five minutes — just typing it out is making me anxious. I’ve tried to find relief by donning headphones, but the pressure on my ears becomes painful as the day wears on.

For this introvert, working in an open office is a waking nightmare. Of course, not everyone is as sensitive to noise and distraction as I am, but that doesn’t mean the shared work environment is necessarily healthy for them either. Let’s take a closer look at the downsides of the open office concept.

Why the Open Office Needs to Go

Somewhere along the line, companies started operating under the false impression that open floor plans encourage communication and collaboration among employees. However, as we know, not all communication is a good thing. Oftentimes, it’s just a distraction.

Without walls, interruptions, disturbances, and the endless buzz of conversation can completely derail concentration. Visual distractions, ringing phones, and clamoring voices destroy the ability to focus on the task at hand, often leading to sensory overload. Even the most extroverted employee needs some quiet time to absorb and process information in order to be productive. To put it plainly, the open office is where efficiency goes to die — research shows that employees are 15 percent less productive in open offices.

Productivity isn’t the only thing to suffer in a shared work space. Studies have shown that open offices can have an adverse effect on mental well-being and cause an increase in the number of sick days workers take. The sustained stress of sensory overload, as well as the absence of physical barriers to slow the spread of viruses and bacteria, leave employees vulnerable to illness and exhaustion.

For no one is this more true than introverts and highly sensitive people (HSPs.) People in these groups tend to respond more intensely to sensory stimuli, and they typically need quiet, calm, distraction-free environments to be truly productive. They are often uncomfortable when being watched and would much rather have a private space in which to work. As such, the stress of a shared office can lead to a state of constant overstimulation, which is incredibly detrimental to their overall health.

What We Should Be Doing Instead

The backlash against the open office is leading more and more companies to embrace flexible spaces. These “next-generation” environments combine private rooms, collaborative zones, and communal areas to create a hybrid office, wherein employees have the autonomy to work in the location that best benefits their task and mood. By offering a variety of workspaces, companies are looking to increase worker satisfaction and develop a positive company culture.

Unfortunately, flexible offices only work to an extent. Those of us who favor an isolated work environment can’t very well park ourselves in a private room and refuse to move — that’s simply not fair to our coworkers. That’s where remote work comes in. From 1995 to 2015, remote work saw a 28 percent jump — and experts expect that number to reach 50 percent by 2020. For many introverts, working from home is a dream come true. It allows them the calm and comfortable setting they need to get their work done and really wow their employers.

Some employers worry that flexible spaces and remote work prevent collaboration and fracture company culture. This is only true if the company doesn’t implement new (and exciting) ways to fill these gaps. Team lunches, brainstorming sessions, communal chats, and company retreats are all fantastic ways to keep the team bond strong. While establishing and maintaining company culture isn’t quite as easy with remote workers, it’s certainly not impossible. Besides, aren’t happy, productive employees worth the extra work?

It’s true that packing workers into an office like sardines costs a lot less than building private offices for each person, but the loss in productivity substantially outweighs the savings. When productivity suffers, so too does employee morale — and unhappy employees rarely stay for very long. Giving workers the tools and environment they need to do their job well is the best way to encourage good employees to stick around.

So please, if you’re a manager, HR professional, or member of the C-suite in your company, please do all of your employees (but especially the introverted ones) a favor and ditch the open office. You won’t regret it.

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  • bknaus

    How can I translate this into my middle school classroom? I know that I have both introverts and extroverts and I hate the traditional teacher lecture style of teaching. How do I build independent spaces, group work spaces, whole group space? Lots of thoughts in my head on this.

    • Elizabeth West

      A lot depends on what technology you have available. If you have computers or I-pads, there are a number of online programs where students can post discussion responses online, you can take class polls, etc. You can still allow students to comment verbally if they prefer, and let those less comfortable with speaking out do the posting online. I think a blend of group and independent activities gives a good balance and when doing group work, have some more quiet roles that can be played such as “recorder” while others do more of the talking.

      • bknaus

        My classroom, but not my school, is 1:1 w/ Chromebooks. We use Google Classroom and Google Drive for most of our work. I record short direction videos and then let the students work. This allows me to work with small groups in a corner or individually with stuck students. This worked well for me last year. I need to reflect and think of ways that I can improve what we did.

        The other thing is the physical layout of the room. I don’t really need desks. I’d love to set up a few desk areas, a couple group tables, and a couple of “living room” type set-ups.

    • Phranqlin

      One of my son’s high school English teachers held some of his class discussions as online chats using forum software. He said that several students who would have barely participated in an open class discussion were far more comfortable with discussing literature online, so he ended up holding these discussions fairly frequently to give everyone a chance to weigh in. The school had issued Windows laptops to students for use in the classroom and also made a moderated forum available as part of an educational software package.

  • bknaus – I assisted in a classroom where the teacher was required to have ‘pod’ layout of the desks. This teacher, like myself, is an introverted HSP, so he *got* it, half of his rooms pods had semi-permanent dividers up between the desks. That way the kids could stand up or lean over to ask a podmate a question, then put their heads back down to get some work done. Meanwhile, at the next pod, the extraverted kids could chat away, getting their work done too. It worked amazingly well, especially as the kids were allowed to change pods between projects, so they could work out for themselves which style suited them best.

    As for open-plan offices *boooo*hisssss*, I’ve been lucky in that while technically my office is open, it’s also in two rooms and I share my room with just one other desk. That’s the company owner, and he’s generally in the field or in the back building computers (we’re an IT service provider). That leaves me and my Pandora alone to get stuff done 😉

    • bknaus

      I like the divider parts. My only concern is supervision and being able to see all the students at all times. Not that I need to interacting with them but being able to monitor for safety.

  • njguy54

    Companies set up open offices for one reason and one reason only: they’re far cheaper than cubicles or closed door offices. They like to talk about improved collaboration and innovation, but anytime a company starts making these changes to the workplace, dialing back perks like telework, or implementing punitive performance measurement policies, it may be because they’re looking to reduce headcount by attrition. In other words, if you don’t like the “new way,” see ya! Unhappy people quit, without the unpleasantness of firings or paying severance. If you think this is happening at your workplace, start polishing your resume, because the next step is likely to be layoffs.

    Putting my cynic hat aside for a bit, I’ve seen places where the open office is done right. There are plenty of tables and other spaces to “get away,” including glass-enclosed mini-conference-rooms where you can go for privacy or quiet. At the very least, workers in open offices should have the right and the ability to move around to find a space that suits them, depending on the work they need to do.

  • Tim

    Definitely struggled through the same problem in my previous company. I disliked the open office concept but I found that I was able to zone in by putting headphones on. Like most things, the longer I endured it, the easier it became to tolerate. Now I sort of prefer being around people but not needing to interact. Sort of the same concept as co-working spaces or coffee shops.

  • AJ

    OMG, this is soooo true. I can hardly focus in my current seating situation, and am extraordinarily irritated by the constant flow of traffic near/past where I sit. I loathe having my screens right in everyone’s faces. My ADD combined with INTJ means I don’t work like most people, and I get really annoyed at having my world on blast – not that anyone has said anything, I get my work done and then some, but it bugs the $(Y$ out of me – which is distracting in itself!

  • scotty Ø

    i work in an open office. it’s a nightmare. All the people in management get private offices with doors while everyone else sits in a massive 300k sq ft space with no walls. We have a few small rooms that are are intended as spaces people can use for things like making private phone calls or having private meetings with one or two other people. but there are only half a dozen of them for a building of 1500 ppl. I spend the entire trying not to be distracted or interrupted, and I have a constant feeling that someone is looking at me or looking over my shoulder.