Over the weekend, a friend of mine gave me a tour of Bloomberg’s NYC office. Their 29-floor building is full of huge, open workspaces. Even the company big-wigs don’t get a private office; when they’re in town, they occupy one of the many transparent, glass-walled conference rooms scattered throughout the building. This is a similar set up to what we have at Harvest HQ, though on a much larger scale, and I think the atmosphere promotes equality and togetherness.
While there’s a lot to be said for this type of environment, the inevitable noise and distraction that comes with it can actually hinder what its supposed to foster: creativity through collaboration. Susan Cain comes to the defense of introverts and quiet workspaces in The Rise of the New Groupthink, an article from last Friday’s NY Times. Here’s the gist of it: equality and transparency are good, but collaborative spaces can decrease creativity, especially in introverts.
So what does it mean to be an introvert and why should we be sensitive to their needs? I think “introvert” is often thought of as a dirty word. People associate it with lots of negative things – poor social skills, shyness, nerdiness, or even being boring – but introversion encompasses more than just social skills. In my case, I’m an “intellectual introvert”. When it comes to thinking and refining ideas, I’m energized by being alone. I need a quiet space and few interruptions to do my best work. At Harvest, I’ve been working in quieter parts of the office since I changed over to a notebook computer. The combination of physical and virtual proximity to everyone makes it hard for me to think clearly, and seeking out a private space helps me focus.
I may be biased, but I don’t think we should cater to introverts just because I am one. The goal here isn’t to isolate any one type of person – introvert or extrovert – but to recognize that people have different needs in terms of how they get their best work done. Companies should learn to care for introverts because they are relying on them to make good decisions and produce good work.
My point, and the NYT article’s, is not to say we should go back to a world of cubicles and offices but rather that we need to find balance between solitary work and teamwork. A small bit of collaboration can have an immense impact. In psychology, this is called the zone of proximal development, which is the difference between the level of learning that takes place on one’s own and the increased learning that takes place with assistance. This theory promotes collaboration, though the overall goal is to help people conquer more complex problems on their own over time. While I need solitude to develop my ideas, the feedback I get from Shawn and the rest of the design team always moves my work along much faster than it would have moved otherwise.
In short, I’m all for talking and exchanging ideas for the sake of learning and creativity, but I think people need to be aware that there’s a time and place for it. Cain’s article is an interesting read, and it reminds us that we should always be thinking about how we can #workbetter.