You’ve ditched the cubicles, designed an open floor plan, and scheduled regular brainstorming sessions for your engineering team, but creativity is still lagging. So, what’s missing?
How about one-half to one-third of your workforce? As it turns out, advice for encouraging innovation may actually impede the creativity of an often-overlooked portion of the workforce: your introverts. Those hard-working, quiet engineers you likely take for granted can be a powerhouse of innovation—if you know how to nurture them.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain refers to studies by the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley on the nature of creativity. “One of the most interesting findings, echoed by later studies,” Cain writes, “was that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts.”
She continues: “[T]here’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that anyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation .”
Cain names numerous introverts whose preference for working alone versus in teams led to innovations and discoveries that transformed the way we live: Albert Einstein, Steve Wozniak, Guy Kawasaki, and Pete Cashmore—to name just a few.
According to Cain, at least one-third of the people you know are introverts. In one study of engineering students and faculty, the percentage of introverts (72%) was more than double the percentage of extroverts (28%).
Unfortunately, American society tends to value extroversion over introversion. We listen—and accept—extroverts’ ideas and opinions because they speak confidently and often. Whether you mean to or not, chances are good you’ve put extroverts in leadership positions, and allowed them to de-rail conference calls and dominate collaboration sessions even when their contributions were sub-par.
The hyper focus on workplace collaboration can put your introverts at a further disadvantage. An open office offers no solace from the constant drone of coworkers carrying on about the latest Game of Thrones episode or which teams are playing football on Sunday. Simply being in the presence of others for six-to-eight hours a day can stunt creativity by making it difficult to safely retreat to that inner place where creativity and innovation are born. As a result, introverts tend to operate in survival mode, getting work done as quickly as possible so that they can retire to a more comfortable environment. Their engagement at work is limited, and their mental and physical health can suffer.
This is not to say that your organization doesn’t need extroverts—nor is it to say that it’s time to resurrect those cubicle farms. In fact, work life is more interesting when both extroverts and introverts are recognized for the value they bring. And collaboration still has an important role to play in engineering. The key is to provide a variety of environments that facilitate collaboration as well as independent work.
Cain writes, “Some companies are starting to understand the value of silence and solitude, and are creating ‘flexible’ open plans that offer a mix of solo workspaces, quiet zones, casual meeting areas, cafes, reading rooms, computer hubs, and even ‘streets’ where people can chat casually with each other without interrupting others’ workflow.”
Of course, not every company has the resources—or the real estate—to build out elaborate workspaces with “streets.” Fortunately, these aren’t necessary. By strategically integrating collaboration technology into a blend of open and quiet work areas, you can create a workspace that nurtures creativity in whatever form it takes.
Cain writes, “Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking. Arrange people to interact one-on-one and in small, casual groups.”
A video collaboration solution can enable employees to have face-to-face interactions from anywhere. When a project requires additional focus, employees can work from home without the risk of missing out on important meetings or opportunities to share their work. And the ability to see each other can make it easier for everyone to communicate. Extroverts can observe nonverbal cues to see that an introvert hasn’t disengaged, but rather is thinking through a response before speaking. Similarly, introverts can watch for opportunities to gracefully interrupt a rambling extrovert.
In the office, modern video collaboration and content sharing technology enable engineers and project stakeholders to meet in a circle. This way, everyone can see each other and talk naturally, as they would around a campfire. This creates a more intimate atmosphere conducive to sharing. Similarly, small huddle rooms can enable two or three to meet privately in person and/or over a video call.
Designing a workplace where engineers can easily create, innovate, and collaborate requires a variety of work areas and collaboration technologies that enable employees to work comfortably and naturally. On any given day, this may mean that an engineer moves between a large meeting room, a single desk, a huddle room, or even a home office. By giving employees the ability to work independently or collaboratively, as the task at hand requires, you can ensure that all of your employees have the best opportunity to innovate.