Commentary: The time of introverts has come as firms ramp up work-from-home arrangements
Considering the world is made up of introverts, extroverts and even ambiverts, it would make sense for workplaces to adopt a nuanced approach to accommodate all types, says PeopleSearch’s Jaime Lim.
SINGAPORE: As more and more companies implement work from home (WFH) arrangements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been widely acknowledged that introverts are adjusting to the new norm much more easily that their extroverted colleagues.
For years, introverts have had to deal with the energy-sapping exuberance of extroverts in open-plan offices and routinely being outshone at meetings by their more vocal counterparts.
Behavioural Scientist, Francesca Gino from the Harvard Business School has highlighted studies that show while introverts constitute one-third to half of the population, “most workplaces are set up exclusively with extroverts in mind”.
She points out that extroverts gravitate toward groups and constant action. They also tend to “think out loud” and “are energised and recharged by external stimuli, such as personal interactions, social gatherings, and shared ideas”.
In contrast, “introverts typically dislike noise, interruptions, and big group settings. They instead tend to prefer quiet solitude, time to think before speaking (or acting), and building relationships and trust one-on-one. Introverts recharge with reflection, deep dives into their inner landscape to research ideas, and focus deeply on work.”
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A TIME TO SHINE
A quiet home would indeed be a welcome refuge for an introvert.
Bear in mind that not all introverts would have the privilege of a quiet home. For instance, some of our introverted candidates tell us they would still prefer to work at the office because their children are a distraction at home.
Barring such circumstances, working from home could be the perfect opportunity for an introvert to shine.
All things being equal now, more quiet time allows introverts to focus more deeply, resulting in a higher quality of work that becomes more apparent to managers who are less distracted by more vocal employees under current conditions.
However, some things can’t be avoided even in remote working – meetings.
But remote meetings can work in introverts’ favour too. Remote meetings tend to be planned, giving the introvert time to process their own thoughts and ideas beforehand.
Renee Cullinan, CEO and co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This, a consultancy that helps organisations improve their work processes, points out that “introverted thinkers make their best contributions when they’ve had time to process relevant data and space to choose words carefully and share thoughtful conclusions.”
Her advice to managers who unconsciously think that “smart people think on their feet”, putting their introverted employees at a disadvantage, is to level the playing field in order to get the best out of every individual.
According to Cullinan, the following methods can help:
Before the meeting: Share the purpose of the meeting, provide any relevant data ahead of time, and list the specific discussion questions you plan to cover.
During: Proactively give introverted thinkers the floor with questions like, “What do you think we should be considering that we haven’t yet covered?”
After: Circulate a meeting summary and proactively solicit ideas that might’ve come to mind after the meeting.
During virtual meetings, Cullinan suggests using the chat feature to let the group know when they want to jump in.
THE DARK SIDE
Generally, a growing body of research has shown that flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting result in better employee engagement, reduced employee turnover and increased productivity.
A 2018 Ministry of Manpower (MOM) study in Singapore found that among workplace practices, flexi-work options had the greatest positive impact on staff retention.
But detractors of remote working point to studies that show a lack of face-to-face interaction causes employees to miss out on nuance and erodes a sense of community which could decrease productivity.
In 2017, IBM pulled back its remote working programme, saying that it was negatively affecting innovation and collaboration.
Nonetheless, Singapore is pressing hard on the remote working accelerator given the COVID-19 crisis, after Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said firms that do not allow employees to work from home if “reasonably practicable” may be issued a stop-work order on Tuesday (Mar 31).
In fact, some experts feel that split-teams and telecommuting should continue beyond this crisis as it would be a more sustainable way of ensuring business continuity should another crisis arise.
However companies feel about remote working, under pandemic conditions, opportunities for collaboration would have to be restricted to virtual meeting environments, but the importance of collaboration also means that introverts must not get too comfortable with being alone for long periods of time.
Dr Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage, points out that introverts simply have a smaller threshold for social and environmental stimulation. They are not totally averse to human interaction.
In the context of the workplace, perhaps all this means is that each employee needs to be managed differently and in a balanced fashion, whatever the conditions.
For example, even if companies choose to pull back remote working once the pandemic is behind us, a consideration of introverted employees’ needs should not be pulled back.
Some of our clients have told us that they will continue WFH arrangements for such employees.
We advise them to also continue keeping them engaged in weekly virtual and/or weekly face-to-face meetings in order to ensure they have a chance to contribute in a group at times, while observing meeting best practices.
In all of this, let’s not forget the extroverts.
Dave Cook, a PhD Researcher in Anthropology at University College London who has spent several years studying how more than 50 people adjusted to becoming an extreme type of remote worker known as digital nomads, found that after some time, working this way became “too isolating” for over 25 per cent of his participants.
One of his participants said, “Just being around other folk working turbocharges your day.”
His study does not describe personality types, but it does show that people have diverse preferences.
Psychologists acknowledge that some people find self-isolating more difficult than others and aside from connecting with colleagues and friends virtually, they recommend a range of coping mechanisms.
Vaile Wright, Director of Clinical Research and Quality at the American Psychological Association recommends establishing a routine – showering, getting dressed and eating meals at regular times.
She also recommends staying physically active and “redecorating a room so it's not the exact same style every week, as it can make your home feel fresher and not quite as stifling”.
Should remote working have to continue, companies must also factor regular check-in sessions to keep extroverts’ spirits up.
A MORE ACCOMMODATIVE WORKPLACE CULTURE – REMOTE OR OTHERWISE
Considering the world is made up of introverts, extroverts and even ambiverts who have a balance of both personality traits, it would make sense for workplaces to adopt a nuanced approach to accommodate all types and bring out the best in each one for better business results – whether under remote working or on-premises conditions.
Returning to former on-premises workplace arrangements would undoubtedly be welcomed by extroverts once the pandemic is behind us.
However, again, let’s not forget our introverted employees.
If you’d rather not let them continue working remotely as we recommend, perhaps they can be assigned a desk in a quieter area of the office.
And why not apply virtual meeting best practices to face-to-face meetings too?
If you choose to retain a largely WFH arrangement, engage the extroverts with regular opportunities for virtual collaboration.
If anything, the pandemic has accentuated the need for flexibility, trust and balance, and will hopefully show supervisors that a more accommodative work culture is needed to optimise each employee’s potential, no matter their personality.
Jaime Lim is Group Business Leader of PeopleSearch, an executive search firm with a presence in six cities including Singapore.