Out From Behind Closed Doors

One Introvert’s Challenges at Work

By: Rob Deptford


I started my career in a padded, sound-proof room with four walls and a door. It was perfect!

As a radio newscaster, and a strong introvert, it was really an ideal combination that allowed me to both face my fears of talking to strangers – thousands of them all at once without having to look them in the eye – and hear my own thoughts without distractions. I’ve been told I have a unique voice for broadcast, but my key skills are concentrated observation, strategizing, problem solving and organized communication. All of these require the right environmental conditions in order to be effective, and the broadcast booth was a great place to be when the door was closed and the on-air sign was lit up.

I entered that career just as media convergence was snowballing and advertising revenue was finding a new, cheaper home on internet. I had fun, but I was soon drawn to the proverbial dark side – a marketing and communications role where objective storytelling didn’t exist, but the working hours were regular and the paycheck was more than a station-branded coffee mug and t-shirt.

My first office had four walls and a door – nothing fancy. It was small and had no window, which was kind of a bummer. I craved natural light, especially during the short days of the Canadian winter. When you commute to work in the dark, and then commute home in the dark, not having an office window only amplifies your awareness that you are not nocturnal. It felt like a tremendous hardship at the time. I was young and naive, but I was also eager to prove myself, and I kept my nose to the grindstone.

A few marketing plans came together with the help of some great team members and wise managers. We spoke over the phone. I left my office to meet with them. They came to my office to meet with me. Collaboration wasn’t hard, and it yielded successful results. I enjoyed working productively with other people when it was necessary, and then I recharged on my own in my office and repeated the cycle throughout the day. I was able to keep my energy at a level that allowed me to perform well.

Eventually, public relations crept into my role, and I began traveling anywhere and everywhere promoting educational programs at trade-show style events. I started speaking at some of those events, and I got comfortable doing it. It became enjoyable. The crowds were draining, though, and I slept hard those nights.

My hotel room became my charging station. They always had walls and a door, and they all had windows.

Back at the office, one of my managers came by to ask if I had ever done any teaching. I hadn’t. She asked me if I would like to try. Good managers do things like that and offer their mentorship — a seemingly disappearing value in some organizations that would rather hire already developed talent from outside than develop from within. With that kind of support, I couldn’t refuse a chance to learn something new.

The curriculum was already written, and I was suddenly in front of a classroom full of students teaching career management – once again defying the laws of introversion when I had to, and returning to my office to recharge on my own as soon as I could.

My missing window to natural light didn’t matter anymore. The silence was much more important. Oh sure, the phone rang sometimes and there were other small energy suckers, but these were minor and easily manageable. I was able to remain productive, especially with the door closed.

As my career progressed, I eventually moved to a new city to take a position that was a step up. When I arrived for my first day I was immediately shown to my new office and given the keys. I worked just inside the main entrance of the building, and it was a substantial upgrade from my previous office. It had four walls, a door and a huge west-facing window with a ton of natural light. I was able to have real living plants that stayed alive as long as I remembered to water them! As far as I was concerned, I had reached a major milestone. My next stop would surely be a corner office with a view!

Shockingly, fate turned against me in my next career move. Everything on paper looked like a step up. The responsibilities, the salary and the opportunities were all reflective of something more senior. I was absolutely blindsided when I arrived for my first day of work and was shown to… my cubicle!

They called it a workstation, as though they were trying too hard to make it sound glamorous. As far as I was concerned, they could have painted it gold and filled it with chocolate, and it was still just a noisy cubicle amongst many other noisy cubicles.

As I looked around the wide open space, there was so much sensory input that my brain felt like a high powered computer trying to operate on a dial-up internet connection. Yes, I’m old enough to remember dial-up internet connections!

There was non-stop activity everywhere. I experienced it something like this:

A Poem for the Forgotten Office Introvert

I once had a workplace that took down its walls. All spaces were seen without walking down halls.

“It will force better teamwork,” the boss firmly said. An extrovert clueless on introverts’ heads.

Phones were all ringing. Feet were all tapping. Pens were all clicking, and binders were clacking.

Printers were chirping. Fluorescent lights hummed. Papers were shredding. Some lady chewed gum.

Coffee drinkers sipped. Snack eaters munched. Fingernails scratched, and food wrappers crunched.

Keyboards were banging. Announcements were paged. It was all I could do to not slip into rage.

The boss said, “Don’t worry. Adjusting’s a breeze!” Then some guy with a terrible cold promptly sneezed.

Constant talking and movement and people to see. I don’t think such workplaces match up with me.

I had unknowingly committed to spending a significant portion of my life in an introvert’s nightmare.

It would be a profound learning experience.

Since then, more offices have changed to open plans. The benefits, particularly on the cost front, are seen to outweigh the pitfalls and lost productivity risk for the estimated 25 to 40 percent of staff who are introverted. Apparently walls and doors are expensive.

I have had to find ways to adapt. Here are a few things I have tried:

Booking a meeting room for myself

This worked well if I had a laptop, but I would find myself wanting to stay for long periods in that comfortable, productive space, and then I would get into trouble for not being at my desk to jump to the phone or join an impromptu meeting.

Wearing headphones

Music (along with coffee) actually makes me more productive, so this was helpful, although not perfect. Only the quieter distracting sounds are blocked out, and you can still see all the activity around you, so there are still some undesired interruptions when you’re trying to focus your brain power where it’s needed.

Moving to a corner cubicle

When you’re buried in a corner there is less foot traffic going by. This is another distraction reduction strategy to be used in conjunction with others.

Introvert pods

Grouping all the introverts together reduces the chances of somebody stopping at your cubicle and chatting your ear off for what seems like an eternity. Most introverts I know are happy to have meaningful conversations, but energy-draining small talk doesn’t feel very valuable when there’s a project looming.

Working from home

This was the best solution for me. I was lucky to have a couple flexible employers that allowed a balance of in-office work and telecommuting. At home, I would sometimes get eight hours of work done in four hours, and then I had time to meet family commitments like getting my kids to soccer or hockey practice on time instead of being stuck in a rush hour commute.

Now that I am a career and life coach as well as an outplacement consultant, I travel to many different offices and coffee shops, but my own office is permanently at home where it’s quiet. At least when the kids are at school!

For now, I have my charging station back. It has four walls, a door, and two windows!

Who knows what my next career move will bring!

Are you an introvert in an extrovert world? What are some strategies you use to cope?

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