Working Remotely: Not Just for Introverts?

In a 2012 New York Times’ article titled “The Rise of the New Groupthink”, Susan Cain wrote about the downsides of the modern workspace structure, suggesting that “solitude is out of fashion”. The introvert/extrovert discussion is not a new one. Cain has both written and inspired many articles that recommend rethinking and redesigning workspaces to be more accommodating for introverts. In 2011, the Huffington Post turned heads when they installed nap rooms where writers and editors could take quick breaks.


The idea was based on compelling research that showed increased productivity for the whole office when introverts were accommodated. But how does the digital realm of remote working fit into the workspace debate? Remote work, or telecommuting, is on the rise. The American Community Survey estimated “3.2 million Americans worked from home in 2012”— a 79% increase since 2005. Articles abound that argue that remote work is most suited to either introverts or extroverts. But just like office spaces, remote jobs can be customized to work for both introverts and extroverts. In fact, working remotely has benefits for everyone. A study by Stanford University and Ctrip, China's largest travel agency, found that remote workers tended to work longer hours—9.5% longer than office workers—and were 13% more productive. Most importantly, the workers were happier and quit rates were reduced by half. The University of Illinois conducted a study that found that “corporate citizenship” (helpfulness and dedication) increased in remote workers. While these studies do not make a distinction between extroverts and introverts, they do include both personality types and show that there are much better ways for people to work than the traditional office structure. Before we get into the specifics of remote work and introversion versus extroversion, lets take a look at where that traditional model came from.

Breaking The Groupthink Myth

William Whyte Jr. coined the term “Groupthink”—a play on doublethink from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four—in a 1952 Fortune Magazine article, in which he discussed conformity as a cultural philosophy. According to Whyte, Groupthink is the basis of the archetypal office where people sit at desks in cubicles and are able (or forced) to talk to each other throughout the day. The idea is that people will be more efficient and come up with more ideas when brainstorming in a group. Groupthink took hold of the work environment in the 1950s when advertising executive Alex Osborn promoted it.

By the late 50s we knew that people are less productive when brainstorming in a group than on their own, thanks to a study by Taylor, Berry, and Block. But the Groupthink work environment stuck. That’s changing thanks to the increased attention the subject has received from experts who have outlined the problems with the Groupthink model. Leigh Thompson, author of Creative Conspiracy, says that more dominant group members tend to control conversations if others don't speak up because they assume quiet or shy members are unprepared or lack opinions. This creates a cycle where quieter people clam up more, because they feel no one wants to hear their opinions. Cain also notes that there is a tendency to let others do the work, think that others will have better ideas, or cave to peer pressure in groups. She suggests that the best work is done by teams when individual members are allowed to work independently first, bringing their ideas and efforts together at a later stage. In fact, Cain states that the most influential work done in academia is done by teams who collaborate remotely. It also turns out that internet-based group brainstorming sessions are very productive because the distance between individuals provides protection from and solves many of the problems of in-person brainstorming.

Making it work for everyone

Introverts work best when they can focus on a task and are free from distraction. They are drained by social interaction, while extroverts derive energy and inspiration through social contact. Though it sounds as if introverts and extroverts are opposites and require totally different workspaces, that’s not necessarily so. It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Everyone is a unique mix—there's even such a thing as ambiverts.

Cain says that the important thing for creating productive workspaces for both introverts and extroverts is that people have the ability to move in and out of spaces of privacy and social interaction as they need it. And there are an increasing number of studies and people who agree.

Communication is vital in any team project, but for both introverts and extroverts, scheduling regular times for social interaction is a must. If you can’t physically get your team together to interact, scheduling some interactive online time can be a great option. Our team members work solo for a certain period of time, and come together to share, discuss, workshop, and brainstorm in Google Docs. We are also available to each other throughout the day via chat or Skype. We use Slack for fun, non-work related banter and conduct biweekly Google Hangouts to play online games together. These activities fulfill the social needs of both introverts and extroverts on the team. They provide the chance for team members to learn about each other, foster friendships, and build stronger working relationships.

A remote work environment allows each team member to monitor their alone time, social interaction, and set aside time to recharge their batteries. As Beutler Ink strategist Claire Carlson-Jones mentioned in 5 Tips For Working From Home, sitting all day, staring at a screen non-stop isn’t all that good for you (are you surprised?). An added benefit of working from home is the ability to take the occasional break to walk outside or run to the store. This built-in feature of remote work serves the same purpose that nap rooms do for the Huffington Post.

Remote work is extremely versatile and adaptable to the needs of both introverts and extroverts, who both need alone and social time, just at differing levels. Online social interaction, regular meetings, non-work related meetups, and co-working spaces give every personality type both the interaction and distraction free privacy they need. To dive more into this interesting topic, check out Susan Cain’s TED talk The Power of Introverts.