Thursday, 17 November 2022 06:46

Why open-plan offices kill creativity and hobble your team's ability to innovate

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We're twenty years into the 21st century and most organizations – including the high tech firms that are supposedly leading-edge – still have workplaces that reflect non-scientific industrial age ideas of what productivity and creativity is all about.

Entrepreneurs and executives seem to be having a difficult time letting go of long-standing concepts that alienate a large percentage of the employees – the introverts – the very people are most likely to create and innovate with technology and systems.

Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not more creative than extroverts. They are, however, creative in a quite different way.

Extroverts are creative when it comes to interpersonal relationships and group dynamics, which is why they make good managers. For example, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that supervisors who tested high in creativity also tended to test high in extroversion.

By contrast, introverts tend to be creative when it comes to technical solutions and systems. For example, a study of 740 professional employees of consulting engineering firms conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that

"a greater percentage of consulting engineers have a Type preference for Introversion over Extroversion, Intuition over Sensing, Thinking over Feeling, and Judging over Perceiving than the national US population".

Obviously, to be as creative as possible, an organization ideally needs a mix of introverts and extroverts and then provide an environment that fosters both creativity types.

However, because entrepreneurs and executives tend to be extroverts (i.e. primarily creative with people), they wrongly assume that their employees will thrive an environment that that's socially an open plan office.

This bias towards extroversion stems from the belief that introverts are damaged goods and should strive to be more extroverted. This idea is an artifact from the "How to Win Friends and Influence People" era of business thought.

Similarly, the open plan office was invented in the mid-20th century under the completely unscientific assumption that employees would be happier and more productive in large open spaces rather than in enclosed offices or cubicles.

Since then, multiple studies conducted by neuroscientists and organizational psychologists at top research organizations have shown that open plan offices not only don't increase productivity but also make it very difficult for introverts to be creative.

The problem is simple. Open plan offices (and especially hot-desked open plan offices) deny introverts the peace and quiet and privacy they require to be creative. As a result, the regular work hours introverts spend in the workplace are largely wasted.

To complete their projects, introverts are thus forced to work nights or at home – a burden that extroverts aren't forced to carry. Needless to say, this creates resentment and frustration, not to mention lost productivity.

BTW, "quiet areas" and "privacy booths" don't help, because:

  • lntroverts are emotionally drained by the mere proximity of other people
  • Quiet areas usually don't remain quiet for long
  • High status workers tend to sequester both the best quiet areas and whatever privacy booths might be available.

Fortunately, there are three straightforward ways to avoid paying this huge creativity tax:

  1. Implement a work-from-home policy. Allowing employees to decide for themselves when they want to work at home and when to come into the office allows both introverts and extroverts (and everyone in between) to work in the environments where they're most likely to be the most creative.
  2. Raise the barriers between work area. AKA, go back to cubicle. Yes, cubicles are ugly, but they're friendlier to introverts than open plan environment. Alternatively, you might allow employees to create semi-private or private work areas using movable barriers, a technique that Ikea is currently pioneering.
  3. Adopt the Pixar/Jobs "hub and spoke" office design. This consists of private, assigned offices (the spokes) surrounding a common area (for interaction). Steve Jobs apparently favored this arrangement probably because he realized that it would support the creativity styles of both introverts and extroverts.