As we are moving to a post-lockdown world where we learn to “live with the virus”, I personally think it’ll take a while to fully go back to normal pre-COVID life — if ever. I believe that some of the behaviors and things we learnt during lockdown and social distancing will live on, and for the better. Less seasonal flu via overall improved hand hygiene might be one example. In my native Sweden, the Calicivirus, also called “the winter vomiting disease”, is a highly contagious virus that usually strikes during wintertime, causing vomiting for 12-48 hours. The best way to protect yourself against it is to wash your hands. The prevalence of hand sanitizer in public spaces for COVID-19 prevention improved Swedes’ overall hand hygiene, which in turn created a drop of approximately 90% in reported Calicivirus cases during the winter of 2020/2021, versus 2019/2020.
Whilst I’m happy that my fellow countrymen got to keep their organic meatballs and fair-trade cinnamon buns down last winter, another silver lining in these troubling times might be an improved way of how we work, and how it may strike a better balance for the wide array of personality profiles we all share.
What generally makes one’s work difficult? The answer is usually “other people”. If everyone was just like you, it would be much easier to arrange meetings, come to agreements and get things done, right? Everyone is not like you though. In fact, the commonly used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test argues that all of us can be split into as many as 16 different personality types. That’s a lot of different personalities to cater for in a work environment. Narrowing these personalities down into two major groups, introverts and extroverts, might make it easier. Most people know the social aspect: introverts gain energy from time alone, whereas extroverted personality types thrive among other people. (Don’t know which MBTI profile you are? I usually use this test, which takes about 10 minutes and is free). French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated “Hell is other people”, and whilst it would be a stretch to claim that introverts feel such a strong level of disdain towards other humans, recent lockdowns, social distancing and remote work have likely been much easier to cope with for introverts than their extroverted peers. In fact, many of us might not look forward to returning to a traditional office again.
Open office environments are the norm today, and it seems like you can’t have a start-up office without the obligatory breakout area featuring multi-coloured bean bags and foosball tables. Not surprisingly, introverts find these open office spaces much more challenging than extroverts. Introverts are highly attuned to their surroundings and tend to crave access to private spaces in which they can escape the gaze of others and feel psychologically safe, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In this open-office world that seemingly never stops talking, small meeting rooms and noise-cancelling headphones have thus far been lifesavers for introverted people to remain balanced and productive.
The way we work, however, might just have received an upgrade that potentially strikes a better balance for both introverts and extroverts. Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce and Spotify are all prominent tech companies that in response to this global pandemic, have either extended remote-working allowances indefinitely or announced a permanent, long-term shift to remote-first working. This, I think, is great news for introverted tech talents all over the world as it opens the option for them to choose the environment in which they perform best.
The notion that you have to be an extroverted, show-stopping, larger-than-life character to succeed as an entrepreneur is a false narrative. Elon Musk (INTJ), Mark Zuckerberg (INTJ), Bill Gates (INTP), Larry Page (INTP) and Jeff Bezos (ISTJ) are arguably five of the most successful entrepreneurs in modern history. They are also all introverts. Whilst their success obviously cannot be attributed to their introverted nature alone, introverted entrepreneurs have numerous super powers that are greatly beneficial when building companies. They are great listeners, which often means they are extremely perceptive and quick learners. They don’t mind working, and co-existing, with big personalities and large egos. In fact, they are usually quite comfortable with these types as it means they can focus on getting work done whilst their extroverted counterparts are out meeting people. Introverts also don’t mind being alone, which allows them to focus and go deep into the problems they are trying to solve.
“If you're clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert, which might be, say, being willing to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area.” - Bill Gates
The ability to focus and go deep into a specific area or problem is usually how great innovation happens, so why not be more flexible with those who need this on a regular basis by offering them a better environment to do so? I myself have always tested to be at least 70% introverted and despite this I truly hope we are not continuing the digital-only world that many of us have faced during various COVID lockdowns. Introverts need personal interaction too, and online meetings can never fully replace in-person communication, in my humble opinion. However, in a post-pandemic world we might be able to better challenge the traditional paradigm that Monday to Friday in an open-office setting might not be optimal for everyone, and it seems to be where the world is heading.
This pandemic has amplified several trends regarding the nature of work: the growth of dispersed workforces, the propagation of digital engagement and the rise of the subscription economy. These trends are together ushering in a new era of the “hybrid workplace”, a work environment that promotes employee agility through a mix of on-site and remote employees, underpinned by greatly improved digital experiences. Both business leaders and employees seem to agree with this shift. Gartner reports that 82% of business leaders will let their employees work remotely part of the time post-pandemic, whilst this PwC survey notes that 55% of employees would prefer to be remote at least three days a week once pandemic concerns recede.
I am hoping that the pain we have all felt during this pandemic can be turned into something positive and help provide a better employee experience through hybrid workplace solutions, creating an optimal mix of real-life interactions in a physical environment with time working from a place of your own choice. Asking to take a Wednesday out of the office for some deep problem solving will hopefully not only be less awkward going forward, but actually encouraged. This hybrid workplace would give extroverts their needed crowd-sourced energy, help companies to maintain their cultures whilst also helping to give introverted entrepreneurs enough alone-time to go deep and create the magic that only they can.