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Flipping the Script: Why Introverts Will Excel in the Hybrid Workplace

published11 months ago
6 min read

For many introverts, working remotely during the pandemic offered a chance for them to shine in a world that by and large perceives extroverts to be more successful. Almost overnight, skills like the ability to take control of a room became nearly obsolete, while the ability to work reliably and with little supervision emerged as critical competencies.

The switch to remote working also put introverts on a much more even playing field with their extroverted coworkers. There’s no question that it’s far easier to speak up on a Zoom call than in a room full of people, where the biggest personalities can easily outshine the quieter ones.

But how will introverts fare as we transition back to the office? Certainly, a return to working full-time in an office won’t suit them — but that approach doesn’t appeal to extroverts either. In fact, Truity found that 86% of introverts and 79% of extroverts prefer either part- or full-time work-from-home arrangements, due to benefits like more flexibility, better work-life balance, and time saved commuting.

A hybrid model, therefore, may offer an ideal set-up that meets the needs of all workers, regardless of their personality type. And it may also allow introverted workers to continue to maximize their potential even when they go into the office, but only if the workplace is redesigned with some of their needs in mind.

Let’s explore how a hybrid approach can benefit introverted workers, even more so than a fully remote work arrangement. But first, we’ll examine the long history of introverts versus extroverts at work, and how the pandemic flipped the script on what a high-performing employee looks like.

Do extroverts make better leaders?

By objective standards, extroverts are more successful than introverts: although they make up just 50% of the population, they account for 88% of supervisors and 98% percent of senior executives. Not surprisingly, they also make more money: research from Truity Psychometrics finds that extroverts dominate the high-earning end of the spectrum.

This is partially because extroverts are more willing to take on management roles, which pay more but require a high level of interpersonal interactions. But are extroverts actually more effective in these roles? Not always, according to a study from Harvard Business School. The researchers found that introverts can actually be better leaders, especially when their employees are naturally proactive. That’s because they’re natural listeners and more receptive to highly engaged team members.

The problem is that in the typical pre-COVID office environment, introverts were unwilling to engage in self-promotion or compete for attention against their more outgoing colleagues. Or perhaps they felt that they could take on a more senior role, but the thought of having to lead meetings in-person or fill a room with their energy and charisma felt exhausting at best, and impossible at worst.

But all that has changed as result of the pandemic — let’s take a look.

The introvert’s time to shine

First, it’s important to address a common misconception about introverts — that being under lockdown was paradise for them, and most would prefer to work from home forever. Not so, according to recent research. In fact, several studies have found that introverts were actually more likely to suffer from severe loneliness, anxiety, and depression during the pandemic.

It turns out that while introverts may shy away from small talk, they need social interactions just as much as their extroverted colleagues — just in a different way. Introverts seek out fewer but more meaningful relationships, both in their personal lives and at work. They also tend to be better and more empathetic listeners. And when many businesses were struggling to retain clients during the pandemic, this translated into a highly sought-after skillset.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Patty McCord, former head of HR at Netflix, described a senior executive who used to define the ideal salesperson as someone who could control a room and had an abundance of energy, charisma, and confidence. But this “completely flipped” during the pandemic, she said. Very quickly, that company’s best employees became “the quiet ones who would just get on a call with a client and listen.”

That’s just one example of how introverts have been able to shine over the past year. They’ve also reported greater productivity and creativity, not to mention improved leadership abilities. In fact, a study from Brigham Young University found new leaders emerging in virtual workspaces. Researchers found that high-potential leaders were not performing well in the remote work environment, while other employees excelled even though they were not perceived to be leadership material.

With the return-to-work transition upon us, it’s easy to assume that introverts will go back to flying under the radar. However, the hybrid office will look very different from the office of yesteryear. Businesses who are adopting a hybrid approach are re-thinking how, why, and when the office should be used, a shift which will surely benefit their introverted employees.

An office with a purpose

It’s true that to some extent, the post-pandemic office will be more focused on socialization, relationship-building, and collaboration. However, in hybrid workplaces these interactions are likely to be much more purposeful and less along the lines of water cooler chat. That’s because when employees can only spend 2 or 3 days per week in the office, they’ll need to make the most of that time, which will require greater focus and fewer distractions.

That’s not to say that informal conversation and networking aren’t a necessary part of navigating one’s career. However, the overall trend here could be beneficial from a productivity standpoint, according to research from the University of California Irvine. Their study found that after an interruption at work (for example, a colleague stopping by your desk to chat), it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task.

Over the course of a typical workday, a few interruptions could easily add up to an hour or more of lost time. This is something that introverts are acutely aware of, partly because they’re more easily distracted in an environment that by and large wasn’t designed for them. In fact, experts have long agreed that the office was designed with extroverts in mind. While the open plan office may be the worst offender, even small distractions can be enough to derail your focus when you’re an introvert.

Enter the hybrid office. Fewer people and therefore fewer distractions? Check. Privacy spaces for focused work, and meeting rooms designer for smaller groups? Check and check. Less time in the office, with the goal of using that time for specific tasks and meaningful interactions? Check again. For introverts, the hybrid model may offer just the right balance that will allow them to finally thrive in the workplace.

The hybrid office: an introvert’s paradise

Companies are adopting a wide range of hybrid strategies, from a flexible or task-based model to a stricter approach where employees are required to work a certain number of days in the office each week. However, employers that take a more flexible route may find that their introverted workers benefit immensely and are better able to maintain the high levels of productivity that they enjoyed during the pandemic. They may also be more willing to take on leadership roles.

The overall idea is that instead of requiring people to go into the office just for the sake of being there, employees should go in when they need to collaborate and work from home when they need the ability to focus. But even if your company isn’t taking a flexible approach — which admittedly won’t work in all scenarios — there are other ways to ensure that your workplace is set up to better support introverts.

In fact, all signs indicate that the tides are finally turning in favor of introverts when it comes to the future of office design. Work Design magazine predicts that privacy pods may become ubiquitous in many workplaces. Group spaces, for example Google’s Team Pods, will generally be designed for smaller meetings versus large gatherings. And elements that promote well-being, productivity and focus will become the norm: think comfortable furniture, quiet areas, and noise-blocking features, to name a few.

For introverts, these changes are both welcome and long overdue, despite the fact that they came about for an incredibly unfortunate reason. And with COVID-19 far from over — recent reports show a surge in new cases across the U.S. — employers have the responsibility to take the long view when it comes to maintaining a high level of safety in the workplace. Fortunately, there’s no reason not to, since both introverts and extroverts stand to benefit from the newly designed hybrid office.

It’s time to unleash the potential of your introverted team members

Imagine a workplace where all employees can excel, regardless of their personality type and their unique needs and preferences. The hybrid model may be the answer that employers and their people have been searching for. In fact, the talent you’ve been seeking for your business may have been right under your nose for years — it just took a pandemic to uncover the reasons why introverted team members aren’t always able to realize their true potential.

With this in mind, don’t forget to take a pulse check on your workforce as you begin to formulate what the hybrid office experience will look like for your organization. Remember, if you’re a business leader reading this, odds are you’re an extrovert, and that means you probably don’t see the workplace through the same lens as your introverted team members. So take time to reflect on what did or didn’t work well for your people during the pandemic, and reassess what the future should look like. By doing so, you’ll be better-equipped to design a workplace where all of your team members can thrive.