Typically, when we discuss the need for and benefits of work flexibility, it’s in the context of fitting work and personal life together. While important, it’s only one application. What if people were able to leverage flexibility in how, when and where work is done to optimize their natural personality traits, such as introversion, or manage their emotional state, including anxiety? How much productivity and well-being would be unleashed?
This link between personality and flexibility came to my attention for the first time a few years ago at the launch party for my friend Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. During the Q&A, a woman stood up and shared a story that, as an extrovert, surprised me.
Her voice cracking with emotion, she explained that she’d recently lost her private office when her company adopted a more open floor plan to save money. As an introvert, who needs more quiet and less distraction to be productive, she was struggling with the change. She couldn’t concentrate. She set her alarm to wake up two hours earlier to get work done before she went into the office and regularly worked from home in the evening to complete the tasks she couldn’t get done during business hours. It was becoming so unbearable and exhausting that she’d considered filing a claim under the American for Disabilities Act, “I physically can’t work. The environment is too overwhelming.”
My first thought was, “Wow. I had no idea this was an issue,” because, for my personality, the more noise, people, and interaction, the better. Then I wondered “Assuming her job could still get done well, why doesn’t she work remotely? Essentially that’s what she’s already doing, albeit outside of normal business hours?”
Why not? This woman’s employer was losing productivity and, ultimately, may even lose her to another job with a more introvert-friendly environment. Why wouldn’t they creatively support her need to flexibly manage where and how she works best, on or off-site?
Thankfully, Morra Aarons-Mele tackles this “why not” question and the link between greater work flexibility, personality traits, and emotional well-being in her fantastic, insightful new book, Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) published by Dey Street.
I recently talked with Morra Aarons-Mele about Hidden in the Bathroom and the message she hopes to convey to employers regarding the potential return of a more flexible work culture for a large, often “hidden,” percentage of the workforce.
CY: How do organizations benefit when more introverted employees are able to match the work flexibility they need to their personality type’s preferred work style (e.g., quieter, less distraction)?
MAM: It is majorly counterproductive and expensive if organizations DO NOT support it. Stress-related injuries cost American businesses billions of dollars a year. For more introverted workers, the office environment can be very stressful especially if it is an open, dense workspace. Your body feels physically assaulted, causing you to clench and hunch forward to protect your vital organs. Some people spend the day in this protective pose due to the environment. And it’s because we prize this amorphous idea of collaboration over deep-thinking, quiet time, and privacy.
For example, Apple built a new $5 billion, very collaborative and pod-based headquarters and people are already unhappy, as has been reported in the media. In contrast, Google Cambridge has a function-based environment with a lot of alone-space which is better, but I hear that, at some offices, it is still not enough. People are using the lactation room for quiet workspace, and there remains a bit of a stigma in some workplaces if you use the alone-space a lot. Again, that’s because the default is “collaborative,” and any regular behavior outside of that is prone to stigma and question.
What we have to accept is that we don’t all default to being with people, all day, in the office to do our best work. Some people are expected to be in the office to the detriment of their jobs when they would be more productive working remotely. But these norms are so slow to shift.
Now I start my speeches with pictures of two people—one is in a boardroom, and another is dressed in sweats and is in bed–and I pose the question, “Who is more ambitious?” Why do we automatically demean those who may need more alone time?
CY: How can having more control over where, when and how you work help people manage anxiety and emotional well-being? Many employees tell me that being able to work remotely, even one day a week, not only saves time but lowers the stress and exhaustion of commuting. Why do you think this is and what does that tell us, again, about supporting the strategic, intentional use of work flexibility?
MAM: A sense of control, in general, and routine helps anxiety. Building that scaffolding is important. At any moment, a quarter to one-third of the population is walking around with general anxiety yet they wake up and commute to work – leaving their children, getting stuck in traffic. Then there’s the social anxiety many people experience.
Anxiety doesn’t go away once you walk through the office door and it, of course, affects how we work in every way. Commuting, flying, presenting while clenching and crouching from the stress creates injury. Autonomy and the ability to flexibly determine how, when and where you work best helps manage the level of anxiety. Sometimes that will be in the office most of the time, and sometimes it won’t. The question is does my employer trust me and allow me to manage my work+life fit flexibly to be my effective.
It’s important to note that men are anxious too. Men suffer from tremendous anxiety. It’s not just women. Having the flexibility to work and go to the gym, eat healthfully and sleep helps to manage that anxiety which increases productivity and saves money.
Bottom line: if organizations build high performance flexible work cultures that give their people the skills and tools to use work flexibility, with strategic intention, to optimize their personality traits and manage their emotional well-being, as Morra Aarons-Mele points out, it would be a win for all. Check out Hiding in the Bathroom for more insights and information about making that culture shift.
(This post originally appeared in LinkedIn)