People

Introverts exposed: why outgoing types thrive in open plan

New scientific research supports the idea that extroverts fare much better in exposed work environments than those who crave peace and quiet to get work done

Ever since author Susan Cain attacked the ‘extrovert ideal’ of open plan office design in her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown, 2012), introverts who crave peace and quiet have been complaining of a raw deal in new environments for working without walls.

Now comes new scientific evidence that suggests Cain was right when she argued that open-plan spaces actually inhibit creativity and productivity when they are intended to do the opposite – because introverted personality types struggle with more open office environments.

‘Introverts reported a loss of performance in exposed space…’

According to a paper in the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research by Casey Lindberg of the University of Arizona with design researchers Diemtrinh Tran and Meredith Banasiak, more outgoing and social personalities (defined as in the low neuroticism category) rated their performance in exposed and enclosed workspace environments similarly, whereas introverts reported a loss of control and performance in exposed space.

The research team, which used an online survey of US workers to gather data, concluded that their ‘findings question the widely held architectural design assumption that physical proximity and open office designs are desirable for social interaction and, consequently, improved communication and innovation.’

Their work echoes Susan Cain’s attack on  ‘peer pressure’ and ‘groupthink’ in open-plan spaces. As she explains in Quiet: ‘We came to value transparency and knock down walls – not only online but also in person. We failed to realise that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of the open plan office.’

The paper, ‘Individual Differences in the Office: Personality Factors and Work-Space Enclosure’  (Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, vol. 33, pp. 105-120) is one of several new studies discussed in a regular column by researcher Sally Augustin in WORKTECH Academy’s Innovation Zone.

Sally Augustin PhD is a practicing environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago. She provides regular scientific commentary for the Academy’s Innovation Zone on new academic research in work and workplace.