Open plan offices

If you’re expected to lead, you must take time to think.

I recently met a couple of senior leaders who work in huge open-plan offices. They both mentioned that they are expected to take responsibility for developing and overseeing teams, and to lead through taking new initiatives in their areas of work.  But both reported that it is impossible to get time to work through a leadership issue at their place of work.  They are surrounded by desks, by conversations, by demands – bosses walk over and ask something; helpful direct reports pitch up in the middle of a train of thought.  However tidy their desks may be, their minds are cluttered; both of them reported not having the space to do the really important stuff they needed to do.

Open-plan offices are designed to encourage togetherness, shared responsibility, team spirit.  But if they stop leaders leading, they are counterproductive.  This is not about being introvert or extravert; it’s about space to think.  If you haven’t got that space, you need to make it – get permission to work from home, or to book a room away from the crowd for a couple of hours, or get a free room designated a ‘quiet zone’ that can be booked and used solely for leadership thinking.  Otherwise you’ll end up doing all the things that don’t really matter, and none of the things that do.

Of course, maybe you prefer doing the things that don’t matter, in which case, leave things as they are…



I’ve been reading ‘Quiet’, Susan Cain’s provoking book about introversion and (to a lesser extent) extraversion.  As someone with a definite preference for introversion myself, I think she’s done a great thing in opening up the discussion about the differences.


Broadly speaking, an extravert is someone who prefers to spend his or her time and energy in the outer world of new people, experiences, plans, actions and possibilities; an introvert prefers to spend his or her time and energy in the inner world of people they’re close to, familiar experiences, deep interests and inner vision.


There’s lots of interesting stuff in the book about the neurological and behavioural differences between people, and at points I felt that lovely surge of confidence that it’s OK to be the way I am, even though most of our popular culture seems to imply that extraversion is in some way ‘better’ or expected of us.  So that was great.  My concern is that I’m sure all of us really prefer to work with a mixture of the outer and inner world – there’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ introvert or extravert.  So it’s not either/or, for any of us – it’s both/and.


So the question becomes not the static one of ‘Which are you, extravert or introvert?’; but the much more dynamic ‘How do you use your extraversion and introversion?’  How do you live in the outer world and the inner world?  How do you learn to move comfortably between the two worlds?  Whichever one you prefer, how do you live in the other one effectively when you have to?


These are the questions I work with all the time using the Myers Briggs model, so in a way they’re familiar.  But for all of us – me included – they provide new challenges every day.  How do I balance the routine needs of the business (introverted activity like writing a blog and doing the accounts) with new developments and external demands (extraverted activities like networking and delivering)?


The great thing is, we have both outer and inner energy; the secret is finding out how to work comfortably with both kinds…