For introverts, working from home removes not only the sensory overload of a typical corporate setting, but also the pressure to conform and perform within that setting. It’s a change that could be key to a new and fairer system.
Our linear concept of “success” at work will be familiar to anyone who’s felt sweaty-palmed terror at the prospect of speaking up in a crowded boardroom.
As introvert Susan Cain says in her bestselling book Quiet: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” And yet it often feels that way.
In a work culture that routinely prizes group brainstorms, open-plan working and energetic team away days, the loud-equals-success mantra seems to go without saying.
So ingrained is this belief in our psyche that research shows team members with louder voices also have higher salaries and job status. Meanwhile, the quieter ones (those that are often urged “to come out of their shell”) are chronically under-represented at managerial level.
This may explain why, just as the circumstances of lockdown have given introverts the permission they need to thrive in everyday life, so a change in our working habits has peeled away inhibitions for the quieter members of our work world.
Trapped in an extrovert’s world
Contrary to common belief, introverts aren’t generally anti-social or shy: rather they derive their energy in a different way to extroverts.
“There is a misconception that introverts cannot be team leaders or team players, and this is largely inaccurate,” says Alyssa Mancao, psychotherapist at California-based group practice Alyssa Mancao Wellness.
“Due to the introverted person’s strengths of being deeply reflective , compassionate, and mindful of one-on-one interactions, an introvert as a team player and team leader would take the time to listen to the concerns of their team and genuinely take these concerns into consideration.”
In addition, she says, introverts “typically wouldn’t make decisions based on impulse. Rather, their ability to self- reflection, self- motivation, and insightfulness are all positive assets that they are bringing to the table.”
The trouble is, our loud, on-demand, quick ideas-driven style of working doesn’t leave much space for these introvert qualities to flourish. This leads to a mismatch between what brilliant qualities an introvert has to offer a team, versus how or whether they’re able to express those qualities.
“Work has been a major source of pleasure and stress for me,” says Elizabeth Roper, an introvert and lead heritage practitioner who recently started running her own business, TellTrails.
“It’s a massive part of my identity, but sometimes my private creativity is held back by my inability to express and show what I can do. I remained at the same level in heritage education – teaching children using museum collections – for years.”
As an introvert team member, Beth feels she is well-placed to “pick up on nuances and subtleties which might be the key to some major problems in the world”, as well as being sensitive to the needs of those around her. But because her quietness was “misunderstood” in a corporate setting, her abilities went unsung.
“Being an introvert would always make me feel like the only introvert there – different to everybody else,” Marie Ashdown, who recently left a career in insurance to set up her own bakery, Humble Crumb, says. “Running my own business allows me to make comfortable decisions of my own, and work in a way that I like to work, at my own pace.”
It’s an issue that Sara Tasker, business coach and podcaster at Me & Orla, is all too familiar with.
“A lot of the people I talk to really believe that their introversion means success is closed off to them,” she says. “They can’t handle networking events, they can’t manage incessant social media notifications or communicate well in a high-pressure boardroom, and they can’t see any other way.”
A wake-up moment in lockdown
At the beginning of this year, the extrovert = success myth that governs so much of what we do at work looked likely to continue unchallenged. But then lockdown happened, and everything changed.
For all the logistical headaches of working from home, it reframed the tempo and setting of teamwork in a way that chimed well with many introverts. Conversations necessarily had to happen within the smaller, more intimate confines of a Zoom call. One-to-ones took precedence over chaotic all-team calls.
The subject of these work calls changed, too. Suddenly, we wanted to check in on each other a bit more, offering support and a shoulder to cry on amid cataclysmic world events. This approach gelled naturally with introverts many of whom, according to Quiet’s Susan Cain, “have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions”.
The work from home revolution has slowed the frenetic pace of office life for people who “listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation”.
At the same time, WFH means we have all been kicking back in the (relative) comfort of a familiar setting, one step removed from the sensory overload that introverts in corporate settings often face.
For quieter types, working from home removes not only the emotional draining triggers of a typical office setting (all the noise, lights and people), but also the pressure to conform and perform within that setting.
As Beth says, “I have to act more extrovert than I am, especially at work.” For Sara, this means obsessively self-monitoring: “Are you smiling? Are you making eye contact appropriately? Did you remember to brush the back of your hair?”
Marie, meanwhile, sometimes felt judged for being “quiet and reserved” in an office environment, or would simply go “unnoticed” amid louder peers.
It’s not like introverts can’t perform in a busy, loud, crowded work environment. Many have for years as a matter of course.
But stripping away these barriers under lockdown has enabled a freeing sensation for people who perhaps only now have realised how inhibited they were before, in “normal” times.
“Lockdown has definitely opened up awareness of working alone and that, actually, it’s OK if you’re not in a busy ‘buzzing’ environment – you can still absolutely thrive,” Marie says.
That, coupled with the relief of not having to be a certain way, has led to renewed sense of validation in introverts, who have, up until this point, may have doubted their own abilities.
Tackling unconscious bias
For so long, introverts may have felt that they’re just no good at teamwork, public speaking or an incessantly social office culture based around regular drinks and events.
But as Sara says, “Lockdown has shown us that it’s the system, and not our introversion, that makes these things hard in our lives.”
If it’s our working structure that’s at fault, then this is a fight where the battlelines lie just as much with managers and leaders as the introverts under their care: and the UK’s more progressive companies are beginning to realise this for themselves.
“All great teams are a blend of noisy and quieter people,” says Jenny Biggam, co-founder of London-based independent media agency the7stars. “Sometimes being quiet can be mistaken for lack of confidence so it’s good to try to understand the person and not jump to the wrong conclusions.
“It’s important that certain personality types aren’t overlooked,” she adds. “After all, your personality isn’t a reflection on your ability to do your job. Unconscious bias can creep in here unless managers are really focused on encouraging brilliant work, instead of focusing on how people are acting in the office or on Zoom calls.”
Psychotherapist Alyssa Mancao agrees that unconscious bias can be a problem, especially when extroversion has such a long and ingrained history of hogging the limelight in the eyes of managers and executives.
“Recognising our biases is an important first step in building a relationship with our employees, as our biases subconsciously colour our interactions with them,” she says. “Do leaders assume that those who are introverted aren’t team players? Do they assume that those who are introverted won’t be as efficient?”
“I think that it is important for an employer to focus on their team members strengths, versus urging them to be someone/ or something that is not authentic to themselves; the latter can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and self-doubt among team members,” Alyssa says. “I would also recommend that employers get to know the members of their team who are introverted and ask them directly what they need in order to feel supported.”
This includes nixing once and for all the belief “that introverts are unable to thrive in leadership positions” when, to the contrary, many of their strengths – emotional intelligence, compassion, an ability to listen – make them perfect senior-level candidates.
Changing the future of work
While working from home won’t necessarily last forever, the shift we’ve seen in the past year has demonstrated how important environment is to wellbeing.
Regardless of where your team falls on the introvert-extrovert scale, the best kind of work setting will encourage a mix of social, open-plan meeting spaces and smaller private nooks, to encourage deep-focused solo thinking and a place to escape to when necessary.
“Some work requires high levels of concentration and focus so it can be done better in solitude but there is other work that is so much better in a team environment,” says Jenny Biggam. “So our office has lots of open-plan areas for brainstorms and workshops, with only a handful of meeting rooms.
“It’s designed to encourage people to work collaboratively, openly and to be a real-life exemplification of our commitment to transparency. Each floor also has its own quiet area with books and softer seating where people can work undisturbed on complex tasks.”
Coworking is emerging as an interesting third way here: an option that bridges the gap between work and home, while also enabling a greater element of flexibility than either.
“The great thing about coworking is that you can choose to work on your own terms,” says Victoria Ashcroft, one of two women behind the Spacehoppers coworking movement in Gloucestershire, southwest UK. “If you’re feeling social, you can put on some tunes and have a coffee or a chat with other freelancers or small teams around you. And equally, if you want to get your head down, you can retreat to a quieter spot and just get on with things.
“It’s not unusual for coworking to attract a mix of people, including those who are quite reserved, for exactly that reason,” she adds. “It’s a good place to connect to others and make friends but there’s zero pressure.
“If you look at working from home, which can be quite isolating, versus working in a permanent office, which can be a bit too much, coworking is the perfect middle ground.”
Above all, the events of the past six months have shown us that there’s no single way of working that works best, just as extroverts – for all their fine traits – aren’t the default typecast for teamwork and success. Instead, the key lies in shaping a work culture that’s flexible enough to encourage everyone to shine.
“Giving people freedom to do their best work is probably the most important thing that a company can do and sometimes I wonder why more companies don’t do it,” says Jenny. “At the 7 stars, we let people choose their own job titles, we don’t count their holiday days, we don’t even have a formal appraisal system.”
Not every organisation will be willing to throw out the rulebook in this way, but it demonstrates the importance of enabling freedom and shades of grey in making team members feel comfortable.
To return to the book Quiet, author Susan Cain tells us: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers – of persistence, concentration, and insight – to do work you love and work that matters.”
If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s this powerful truth: we do our best work in an environment that works best for us. And what works best for us changes from person to person.
Once leaders and their teams understand this basic principle, they’ll have the beginnings of a work-life blueprint that empowers all voices; no matter how large or small they happen to be.
Images: Getty, Unsplash