Office design for introverts

Last updated 13:56 05/06/2014
Office space

OFFICE INTROVERTS: Steelcase's 'Quiet Spaces' feature dimmable lighting, calming materials and tinted glass.

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When Facebook finishes construction next spring on its massive new campus in Menlo Park, California, one of its rooms will be big enough to hold 10,000 employees.

That's not what Susan Cain, US author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," would call a productive space.

Cain, whose book on introverts quickly became a bestseller in 2012, has spent the past year sharing her research with design company Steelcase to come up with a workplace alternative to the now nearly ubiquitous open-office plan.

The result is a line of room designs, called "Quiet Spaces," that will debut on June 9 at NeoCon, the largest interior design conference in North America.

According to Cain, introverts make up somewhere between one-third and one-half of the American population (she among them).

These are people whose best ideas tend to come when they work on their own rather than in teams and who can feel sapped or distracted by the bustle of a room full of chatty employees. In fact, Cain says, research shows that - for introverts and extroverts alike - every interruption doubles the time it takes to complete a task.

Yet roughly 70 per cent of US workplaces are designed in the open-plan format, in which employees occupy a sea of cubicles and desks with very few private offices.

"The sea of sameness was great because it drove real estate efficiencies," says Allan Smith, vice president of global marketing for Steelcase. "But people were commoditised in the process."

Open office plans came into vogue in the 1950s, when American companies began to see the advantages of a flexible and low-cost arrangement for holding their growing number of white-collar workers. The book "Cubed," which explores the history of the cubicle, even notes how early adopters of the design found the lack of walls liberating.

In the decades that followed, more and more walls came down, and workplaces saw the advent not only of office-less floor plans but of flex spaces and hotelling, where employees trade in their fixed desk for the ability to occupy any that are unused - allowing companies to further reduce space.

A study by CoreNet Global, a corporate real estate association, estimated that the average square footage per American worker will drop 33 percent between 2010 and 2017.

"There's a mountain of research suggesting that radically open offices are a problem," Cain says. Among the issues are an increase in sick leave and stress, and a decrease in productivity.

Also, and perhaps counterintuitively, co-workers are less likely to form strong relationships in such spaces, Cain notes. That's because trust tends to emerge from a sharing of confidences, which more often happens where there's greater opportunity for privacy.

Having transparency in an organisation is "not the same as saying we need to be physically available and on display throughout the day," Cain says. "People take a concept like that and misapply it."

What Cain and Steelcase are putting to market, then, are essentially five work rooms that can be dropped into existing open offices to provide a sort of introvert sanctuary.

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As Cain points out, the rooms are also intended to give extroverts some privacy and respite for the times when they, too, need a quiet space to think.

"It's kind of thrilling," Cain says. "When you're researching a book, you have all these ideas floating around in your head, but you never think they'll be realised in a concrete way."

The prefabricated rooms, which cost from US$10,000 to US$25,000 (NZ$11,800 to NZ$29,600), have names like "Be Me" and "Flow," and feature dimmable lighting, calming materials and tinted glass.

For those seeking solitude on the job, any room with four walls would likely do the trick. But if nothing else, the introvert-branded designs take a stab at recasting what it means for a workplace to work for its employees.

- The Washington Post

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