In the age of open-plan offices, some workplaces are building in separate spaces in which to focus or regroup.

Share story

Employers have long used personality tests to better manage the working dynamics of their teams. But how about designing office space for the character spectrum, something that fosters productivity and health for introverts, extroverts and everyone in between?

It’s happening more and more.

“There’s a recognition that the general adoption of open-office plans results in as many challenges as it provides solutions,” says Kristen Scott, managing partner of Seattle-based architecture and design firm Weber Thompson. “While great for transparency and communication, it can result in spaces that are challenging to focus in.”

Canadian e-commerce company Shopify had diverse work styles in mind when it included an opt-in question on the employee survey, asking people if they identified as an introvert or an extrovert. Shopify used the information in plans for its new Ottawa headquarters in 2014.

“We have created spaces that are open and free-flowing for information sharing, casual spaces for connecting with one another, and private spaces for quiet introspection and deep thinking,” says Courtney Burdette, Shopify’s facilities operations and design lead.

At Seattle firm OpenSquare, workspace designer Jenna Perrow often includes quiet rooms in her proposals. “All client needs are different, but we all need a moment of privacy from our busy schedules, and it’s vital to provide those spaces when designing an open-office plan.”

In a space-constrained environment, those areas can be multi-use. They may look like a workstation setup, or have a lounge chair and lighting that can be dimmed when you need to check out for 15 minutes, she says. “Lighting and materiality can play a big part on how a space feels to users.”

Workspace designer Jenna Perrow, of OpenSquare, included a quiet room in Seattle client KPG’s offices. Such rooms are a growing trend. (Courtesy of OpenSquare)
Workspace designer Jenna Perrow, of OpenSquare, included a quiet room in Seattle client KPG’s offices. Such rooms are a growing trend. (Courtesy of OpenSquare)

Perrow’s colleague, project planner and designer Tod Reps, offers more examples. “One of my clients incorporates focus rooms that have a desk for one person, and you can reserve that room for a set amount of time to be away from everyone else.”

Another client, Reps says, incorporated a meditation room into their space, specifically made to be quiet and dimly lit, to allow people a chance to decompress during the day.

A team with both introverts and extroverts, and possibly people who are empaths or highly sensitive (HSPs), benefits from other environment considerations, too. Scott cites a 2018 research brief from the University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab, which says that natural daylighting and the visual connection to greenery improves mood, helping to reduce the effects of depression. It has also been shown to reduce stress and increase productivity.

As Pacific Northwest employers continue to compete for resources, they may find it valuable to ask their staff for ways to improve the office. As Burdette says, “Common feedback from our employees is that a comfortable work environment is important to them, so we include our employees throughout the design process and involve them in design decisions as much as possible.”

Once these spaces are in the plan, the test for the employer becomes their commitment to keeping them. Private rooms are usually cut first in the space-planning process, when clients start assessing their current and future head counts, and balancing that with meeting and public spaces, according to Perrow.

But there’s a growing case for the link between a comfortable environment and employee retention. A report by furniture company Steelcase states, “A distinguishing characteristic of engaged employees is that they have a greater degree of control over where and how they work, including access to privacy when they need it.” And engaged employees are more likely to stay.

With offices around the world, Shopify seems to indicate agreement through their approach.

“As we’ve expanded, we have continued to build on this idea. Having spaces for both introverts and extroverts is just part of our design principles and philosophies,” says Burdette.