All credits to Mr Porter:
he office as we knew it is gone and it remains to be seen when fully returning to work will be possible. Or if, indeed, people will want to return. A survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics found that, of working adults now home working, 85 per cent favoured a “hybrid” approach of both home and office working in the future. This raises important questions. If people can be productive at home, do we need the nine-to-five office structure any more? When offices do re-open, will we think differently about what contribution looks like?
Traditionally, workplaces have favoured the loud. We have conflated input with who has the keenest voice or who is the most visible – people who talk a lot, call the most meetings or stay at their desks the longest. “Western society is based on Greco-Roman ideals of the person who can speak well, a rhetorical ideal,” says Ms Susan Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, which makes the point that our modern world is largely geared around extroverts. “We have always been to some extent a society that favours action over contemplation.”
Working remotely has made us all less visible, with fewer opportunities to be loud (although we can still call as many meetings and work as late as we like). Home working also suits some people better than others. Individual differences in personality, particularly whether someone is more introverted or extroverted, will inform how the change has felt.
Offices provide many opportunities for ad hoc conversations, camaraderie and the sense of shared meaning. But there can be plenty of personal space invasion (particularly in open-plan set-ups) and, sometimes, a level of pressure attached to social participation. For those with more introverted personalities, constant dialogue may impact on productivity because it is draining. More extroverted personalities may have found the loss of sociability challenging because that energy is what motivates them.
This sense of motivation is linked to the brain’s chemical reward pathways. Studies have shown that extroverts are less sensitive to the neurotransmitter dopamine. When released in large amounts, dopamine creates feelings of reward and pleasure, which motivates us to repeat the behaviour associated with it. As a broad stroke, extroverts require external stimulation, which often comes through social interaction, to feel energised and rewarded. For introverts, too much stimulation can quickly feel tiring. Solo recharge is often necessary to be fully present in social contexts.
“The digital environment has, perhaps, allowed people who are more introverted to feel empowered to speak”
By having more solitude at home, introverts may feel able to do their jobs better, without distraction. For all the pitfalls of days spent in endless Zoom meetings – the monotony, the lack of distinction between work and home, the sore back and dry eyes – it has been useful in levelling the energy of conversation within teams.
“The digital environment has, perhaps, allowed people who are more introverted to feel empowered to speak,” says occupational psychologist Dr Jo Yarker. “Those who are more extroverted sometimes have to stay quiet because the virtual environment doesn’t allow them to communicate in the way they are used to. But just because someone is saying something doesn’t mean it has inherent value.”
Apart from having more peace and quiet, remote or hybrid working has given introverts a different way to shine. When physical meeting rooms were removed, so, too, was the hierarchy of louder people grouping together at one end of a table, while quieter, more reserved people sat on the edges, less inclined to participate. Virtual meeting spaces flatten such hierarchies because you often have to request – with the “raise your hand” function – to speak. Overlapping conversations are rarer. This more considered conversational pace may give introverts time to gather their thoughts, feeling more able to offer meaningful contributions.
Workplace leaders now have an important opportunity to examine the ingrained biases of what good contribution from employees looks like. The cultural bias towards extroverts has contributed to presenteeism, being physically in your seat at work, no matter how unproductive or even unwell, to give the image of dedication. Presenteeism has been discussed in the social sciences since the 1980s and has only seemed to get worse. Pre-pandemic, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 83 per cent of respondents had observed presenteeism in their organisation. It isn’t healthy.
Some studies have referred to presenteeism as a public-health hazard, because of the risks associated with infection control and burnout. It is a political issue, too, because an onus on physical visibility often overlooks employees who have a great deal to offer, yet need more flexibility than being required to sit at a desk nine to five, five days a week. “It is one of the things that has been a barrier to some women feeling like they can progress in the workplace, because of issues around childcare, but also to those with long-term conditions who may need to work more flexibly,” says Yarker.
“An appreciation that people need different things in different ways, at different times, has really come through”
Extroverts are often celebrated for their enthusiasm, outgoing nature and mind for action, whereas introverts may offer calmness, empathy and be good listeners. During the pandemic, these soft skills became more favourable as companies tried to retain clients and contracts through considered communication. These traits may now seem more favourable in potential new employees after we’ve all worked remotely for so long.
We have learnt that contribution can take many forms. It is not just about who talks the most. The idea of organisations intentionally creating work-life balance for employees, with an emphasis on flexibility, seems logical and compassionate, irrespective of personality type.
Flexibility feels like the key here and is reflective of how many of us see ourselves as employees. We may have more introverted or extroverted traits, but we are not simply one thing or the other. For example, being introverted doesn’t mean you don’t like serendipitous office chats at all. Having the chatting-by-the-coffee moments removed completely has, understandably, made some people feel lonely.
“As an introvert, I quite enjoy home working,” says Matt, a charity copywriter from London. “I don’t miss the commute, pointless meetings and office gossip, but I do miss the camaraderie, the water cooler chat about TV shows and the odd cake. Working from home can feel very lonely sometimes.”
Kate, who lives in Brighton and is a product manager at an advertising agency, says she is “a bit of both” in terms of extroversion and introversion. Although she works “more at home than in the office”, the absence of the social aspects of her job has brought an important realisation. “My job is stressful and, now all the social aspects have been removed, I’ve realised how much of that helped me cope with the work itself,” she says. “I need to find a way to balance out the fact that I spend all day on a computer. I don’t think it’s a healthy way to live.”
Yarker feels there may be a challenge in ensuring that “those with a preference for introversion don’t lose out as we move forward”. Because we have been able to see into our colleagues’ lives in a new way and recognise that no one can just be what she refers to as “a one work self”, perhaps we can start celebrating individual variation.
“An appreciation that people need different things in different ways, at different times, has really come through,” she says. “For managers, encouragement has become associated with output. How does an individual contribute? What is the value of that contribution, regardless of their journey?”