The quiet engineer, the out-spoken salesperson, the manager running from meeting to meeting all day. Most offices contain some variation of each of these archetypal personalities. While easy to portray in pop culture, each of these people speaks to a very real psychological phenomenon that should be acknowledged and accounted for in the modern office. While not all-encompassing, here are four different types of employees in the workplace you’re likely to encounter, the challenges they face in the open office and tips to help ease their discomfort.
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Introverts -- who make up at least half of the population -- tend to keep to themselves and work best when left alone. The open office is especially challenging for introverts in a couple of key ways.
Sensory stimulation is at an all-time high in an open layout with constant chatter, movement, visual clutter and so on. This stimulation creates an overwhelming experience for introverts as they tend to be predisposed to anxiety. Open-office plans were designed with the idea that employees would collaborate and interact throughout the day. This underlying pressure to be social adds a layer of stress to introverted people.
Suggestion: Empower introverts in the workplace through privacy and autonomy
To counteract the overstimulation introverted employees experience in the open office, emphasize privacy and autonomy through design. If your office is completely open, give employees the option to use removable dividers at their desks to provide a sense of privacy.
Another great option to make introverts more comfortable is to make different types of workspaces available to them. An activity-based working model designates specific spaces for collaboration and others for individual, quiet work, making it obvious what kind of behavior is expected throughout the office. Introverts can escape to a quiet nook or pod without getting interrupted if they feel overwhelmed by stimulation in the collaborative or social areas of the office.
Open office stimulation can be just as difficult for extroverts as it is for introverts. Extroverts are especially easily distracted and considering our brains can only process about 40 pieces of the 11 million bits of information we get every second, the last thing an extroverted person needs is more stimulation. Visual clutter and the fear of missing out on passing conversations makes it difficult for extroverts to focus in an open office setting. Even worse, being surrounded by people and activity throughout the day, an open-office plan leaves extroverts feeling isolated as colleagues turn to their screens to communicate. In fact:
"Open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM” with face-to-face interactions dropping by 70% in open office spaces according to Harvard Business School.
Suggestion: Provide extroverts in the workplace spaces to socialize
Activity-based working offices allow for different types of work to be completed in specific areas of the office. Sometimes, the most productive thing for an employee to do is hit the reset button by relaxing and socializing. Areas like kitchens, cafes, stairs or informal seating designated for casual collisions is a great solution to accommodate for extroverts craving social attention. These areas can bolster ad-hoc collaboration while having the added benefit of shielding introverts from conversations they’d rather not have to tune out.
There are a million and one reasons why open offices are unpleasant places to be when poorly designed. They’re loud, distracting, crowded and strip employees of privacy to name a few. It’s no shock then that some employees choose to work from anywhere but the office, even on days when they’re expected to be there.
While open offices are linked to an increase in legitimate sick days taken, absenteeists avoid the office even when they’re not sick. Open offices are stressful places and the dread of entering an anxiety-ridden space caused absenteeism in the workplace to rise resulting in $450-$550 million lost annually from these unmotivated or anxious employees.
Suggestion: Bring absenteeists back to the office by emphasizing company pride
Be it anxiety, dread or lack of motivation, one way companies can combat absenteeism in their office is to empower their employees. A strong company culture, with a spirit of supportive accountability, will make the office a place people want to be. Fun perks and trendy amenities aren’t enough when it comes to making the office a space all types of employees truly enjoy.
Office design should be a physical representation of a positive company culture that communicates to employees their own individual value. A great way to give a sense of ownership back to employees is by asking for their input in office design. On a small scale, the piece of art employees walk by every day can be something they chose and derive meaning from rather than just another generic print we’ve all seen in our dentist’s office.
“An office is an expensive way to take attendance.” Sam Dunn, CEO of Robin
The counterpart to absenteeism, presenteeism, is when workers come to the office when they shouldn’t. Be it internal or external pressure, presenteeists come to work even when they’re sick, resulting in unproductive days and a rapid spread of the sniffles. Beyond, physical sickness, mental health presenteeism is on the rise with employees coming to work despite experiencing unproductive days due to depression, anxiety or other pervasive mental ailments.
Presenteeism in the workplace is especially rampant in the open office since it’s incredibly obvious who is and isn’t physically present at work. Everyone is familiar with the end of day game of chicken; no one wants to be the first to crack, pack their bag and leave the office with everyone’s eyes on their “underachieving” back. Presenteeism comes with a hefty price, though. The total cost of presenteeism in the U.S. was found to be over $150 billion per year in the “American Productivity Audit” study.
Suggestion: Establish clear company policies so presenteeists stay at home when they should
It’s easy for presenteeism to fly under the radar. However, there are a couple of key ways to invest in your employees to help alleviate the pressure, discomfort and lack of productivity caused by presenteeism’s ever-growing footprint. Establishing a clear policy for flexible working is a proactive solution to help employees know when they should and shouldn’t be in the office. Including work-from-home and remote work options in this policy creates a culture wherein employees are focused on how and where they can be more productive instead of whether their neighbor is leaving at 4:59 pm instead of 5:00 pm.
Everyone is different. It’s difficult to account for all the different types of employees in the workplace. There are, however, certain psychological phenomena exacerbated by the discomfort associated with the open office. Understanding common types of employees in the workplace and incorporating ways to ease their discomfort can help raise employee satisfaction, productivity and retention.
Looking for design tips to promote wellness in the workplace? Check out our related post here