I have grumbled before about the trend away from private offices towards cubicles and open plan offices. At the same time, there are people who genuinely prefer these offices, which I considered inhumane. Then I read a book: "Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking", by Susan Cain. It helped clarify the differences between introverts and extroverts, the rise of the latter, and the implications all this has on workplace productivity.
Cain's definition of introversion and extroversion is pretty much what you would expect if you are familiar with Myers-Briggs. She emphasizes that "introvert" does not mean shy nor anti-social. Rather, an introvert tends to focus on the inner world of thought and feeling, enjoys solitude, dislike conflict and focus well. An extrovert would be the opposite, focusing on the exterior world and social interaction, are comfortable with conflict and enjoy multitasking. Another way to look at this is to say that introverts are more sensitive to outside stimulation, such as noise or people, and thrive at lower levels of such stimulation. Conversely, an extrovert needs a greater intensity of stimulation to feel "right". An introvert needs solitude to recharge after experiencing elevated levels of stimulation. An extrovert is the opposite: he recharges with social interaction.
The difference between introverts and extroverts -- keep in mind this is a continuum rather than a binary distinction -- in terms of optimal stimulation levels helps explain work environment preferences. An introvert works best in a relatively quiet, distraction-free environment, such as a private office. An extrovert is energized by the constant social interaction of pair programming and the bustling activity of an open plan office.
There have always been introverts and extroverts, so why does the work environment tend to favor the latter? It's not just the cost-savings from packing more people into less space. Cain points out that there has been a change of culture in the US. (I am writing specifically of US culture because not all cultures have the same antipathy towards introversion).
Some time around the beginning of the 20th century, Cain claims, the Culture of Personality replaced the Culture of Character in the US. Outward charm replaced inner virtue. From Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins, we are now exhorted to express ourselves, to perform, to sell ourselves. "We actually have schools for 'self-expression' and 'self-development', although we seem usually to mean the expression and development of the personality of a successful real estate agent", observed one Harold Stearns in 1921. Movie starts became our role models. Parents of introverted children fretted and tried to push a more gregarious personality.
When Cain went to Harvard Business School -- the training grounds of countless business leaders -- to do her research, she was told "Good luck finding an introvert around here". Students are pushed to be extroverts: mandatory study groups, grades heavily dependent on class participation, late night group outings … "socializing here is an extreme sport". Even before college, many elementary schools now arrange their desks in clusters or "pods" for group or cooperative learning activities. This emphasis on team and verbal skills reflects a wish to prepare kids for work in the business world.
This culture has washed over the business world and into every nook of the workplace. Software development for a long time attracted introverts due to the nature of the work. But even here, the extrovert ideal is taking over. You probably know the manifestations: heavy emphasis on collaboration, open plan offices, people packed together into team rooms, constant verbal interaction such as all-day pair programming, lack of privacy, and of course noise. The workplace is now a high-stimulation environment and seems suited for extroverts. So at least some people will thrive in there, right?
Noise and consequence
The funny part about the extrovert workplace or culture is that there really isn't any proof that it works. The merits of collaboration are asserted, not proven. I would say that we end up with offices that extroverts like to work in, not necessarily offices that get work done. Remember those Harvard Business School extroverts? They are probably the ones who end up being the managers who decide how the office should look and push for socially intensive "collaboration". But these choices hurt everyone's work performance, not just introverts'. For example, Cain points out that brainstorming doesn't work: studies show people generate better ideas individually.
For software development, Cain cites Tom DeMarco's work, also documented in his classic book Peopleware. DeMarco ran the Coding War Games, a study testing programming performance of over 600 programmers from 92 companies. The best outperformed the worst by 10 to 1. Folks, this is the origin of the "good programmers are 10 times more productive" axiom. There was no correlation between performance and experience, time nor salary. What is significant is that programmers from the same companies performed at the same level, even though they did not work together! The key piece of data is that top performers worked for companies that gave them the most privacy, personal space and a distraction-free environment. Another study tells us that office noise reduces knowledge worker productivity by 66%. Yikes.
Proponents of collaboration may have been inspired by open source projects on the Internet (Linux, for example) as examples of successful collaboration. But Cain points out that there is a significant difference with online collaboration: developers are physically isolated. They work alone, and only interact when they want to. The tools of collaboration -- email, mailing lists/forums and bug tracking software -- are asynchronous and undisruptive. This works great for introverts.
Cain names numerous famous introverts (e.g., Newton, Einstein, Chopin, Spielberg, Ghandi, Wozniak) and describes many strengths associated with introversion. A third to half of all people are introverts. The bottom line is that it makes no business sense to alienate a substantial part of the world with so much to contribute. Ideally, the physical workspace should allow options so introverts and extroverts can pick an environment suited to their temperament. She also wrote of "restorative niches", opportunities for solitude so introverts can recharge. I am fortunate to be allowed to work from home a couple of days a week. Most importantly, in my opinion, we need to appreciate the differences in our temperaments and accommodate them so both introverts and extroverts feel welcome in the modern workplace.
- Rise of the cattle office: my 2010 blog post on crowded offices.
- Sound News: More damaging evidence on open plan offices: article describing the 66% productivity loss from noisy offices.
- The Power of Introverts: website for Quiet, the book.
- TED talk video: Susan Cain: The power of introverts