Take a moment to get up from your desk, if you aren’t already standing, and have a look around. If you see rows of desks, you’re in an open-plan office. And if you’re an introvert—one of those quiet, retiring types—you’re stuck in the ninth circle of hell. Most employers opt for open spaces in the name of collaboration and creative thinking, in spite of recent studies suggesting that the setup generates more energy-sapping distractions than electrifying ideas.
Susan Cain developed some of that research for her 2012 New York Times bestseller, Quiet, in which she championed the value of introverts in a culture that prizes gregarious extroverts. The book struck a chord in many readers but failed to turn the tide the rankling bullpen offices where the bulk of Americans still work. Now she is working with the Michigan furniture manufacturer Steelcase to reshape office life. The collaboration will design a new collection of discrete spaces for introverts seeking refuge from the constant buzz of their colleagues.
The line of Quiet Spaces includes five acoustically-sealed rooms where introverts can retreat for either decompression or focused work. The rooms range in size from 48 to 100 square feet—collaboration spaces are larger—and are outfitted in muted tones, tactile fabrics, and comfy furniture.
Most important, these rooms offer an escape from the prying eyes and ears of others. In a survey of 39,000 workers, Steelcase found that 95% of respondents expressed a need for some kind of privacy, whether it be to make a doctor’s appointment or handle a delicate client negotiation. Each of the rooms is constructed from glass panels, which provide acoustic privacy and can be covered in wood, fabric, or vinyl for partial or complete opacity. Steelcase combined the more universal need for privacy with Cain’s specific research on the preferences of introverts, who are estimated to make up more than a third of the workforce.
One of the Quiet Spaces, dubbed Flow, evokes a library with a desk, shelves, and an abstract pattern of books on the walls. These cues, Cain says, that “act on us unconsciously and prime us to know we’re going to use that room” for focused work. The collaboration-themed room Mindshare, in contrast, contains a pair of chairs, a large task table, a whiteboard, and a wall-embedded computer screen, signaling that this is a place for team-based brainstorming.
The other three rooms are for rejuvenation. “After introverts have a high-energy experience,” Steelcase CEO Jim Keane says, “they need to go to a place where they can close the door and clear their mind before they start the next thing.” As such, the rooms Be Me and Studio give employees the option of being alone, even if for just 15 minutes, without being branded a misanthrope. In the right workplace, yoga, meditation, and possibly even naps could be company-sanctioned activities in these rooms.
Cain also hopes to fix one of the paradoxes of the open-plan office. For all the talk of collaboration, the openness actually inhibits personal bonding. “The currency of a friendship is to exchange confidences with people,” Cain says, “but if you feel like you can be overheard, it’s a lot harder to do that.” She conceived the Green Room as a space for two or three people to just hang out on an L-shaped couch resembling a lounge area in a bar or café—an idea that initially gave Steelcase pause. “Intimacy carries with it negative implications,” Cain says. “But part of a satisfying workplace is the ability to form relationships with each other in a more relaxed, human-scale settings.”
Cain doesn’t predict a return to lavish Mad Men-style corner offices—part of the open-plan’s popularity stems from its cost-effective strategy of squeezing more people into smaller spaces. Instead, she urges employers to design workplaces where both introverts and extroverts can effortlessly float between private and public environments, or face the hidden financial cost of lost productivity. “People literally cannot get their work done,” she says. “That makes no economic sense.”