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When the pandemic closed her office and forced Veronica Wortman Ploetz and her whole team to work from home, she became more productive, almost right away. Wortman Ploetz, a senior manager in a leadership training organisation, considers herself an introvert.
“I get my energy from being alone and recharging,” she says. In the early morning hours, when her house was quiet, she was suddenly able to accomplish more than she typically could in a busy – and for her, draining – office environment.
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“I’d get up at 5 a.m. and instead of having to go through the rigamarole of getting ready, feeding the dogs, the laundry list of things to get out the door and do the 45-minute commute, I was just in the zone,” says Wortman Ploetz. “I got everything done when I felt energised in that quiet time.”
While the transition to remote work in early 2020 was abrupt for everyone, some found themselves thriving more than others – in many cases, thanks to their personality type. Many introverted workers found working from a distraction-free environment preferable. Client needs also changed in ways that benefited introverts’ skillsets, while virtual communication offered introverts more opportunities to share their thoughts. For ‘quiet deliverers’ who may once have flown under the radar, remote work offered not only a less taxing day-to-day, but also an opportunity to combine that extra energy with new ways of working – and really stand out.
An introvert’s moment to shine
In the uncertain days at the outset of the pandemic, the needs of companies and their clients experienced a shift, and workers who could meet them stood out.
“While extroverts are celebrated for being outgoing, action-oriented and enthusiastic, introverts bring analytical thought and empathy,” says Richard Etienne, a Surrey-based branding expert who lectures on introverts at work. “During the pandemic, those skills immediately became incredibly sought after. Introverts are reliable; people who take one project at a time and do it thoroughly. They’re good at deep thought and forming personal connection. That was really important during the period when companies were trying to hold onto clients.”
While extroverts are celebrated for being outgoing, action-oriented and enthusiastic, introverts bring analytical thought and empathy – Richard Etienne
In a recent Bloomberg interview, Patty McCord, former head of HR at Netflix, said it was clear managers were newly aware of the skills of employees who didn’t command attention before. She referenced a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company who had a “matrix of skills” she once used to identify a great salesperson: “able to control a room, a lot of energy and charisma, confident, blah, blah, blah. And it completely flipped during the pandemic,” said McCord. Suddenly, that company’s best employees were “the quiet ones who would just get on a call with a client and listen”.
Empathy and a propensity toward more thoughtful communication made introverts shine, adds Beth Buelow, a career coach and author of The Introvert Entrepreneur. “That tendency to put others in the spotlight, to hold up the team and be that silent partner, is a strength,” she says. “That is part of what managers and leaders witnessed coming through. They needed the empathetic listener. The person who was willing to step back and be like, ‘I hope you’re doing OK; how can we help?’”
A refreshing change of pace
On top of having the right innate skill set, many introverts benefited from the move away from a physical office environment. That because the traditional office, in many ways, really did not suit workers with more introverted personalities.
“The workplace was created by extroverts, for extroverts,” says Etienne. Open-concept offices are the worst offenders, he explains. “The ease with which people can access your space without invitation can be intense.” In one role, Etienne recalls, “I had a desk by the lifts – the elevators. I couldn’t get 15 minutes of peace.”
That’s tough on someone with an introverted personality, since constant conversation can be draining. While extroverts, in contrast, are energised by social interaction, says Etienne, “at the end of the day, the introvert is spent”.
In a workplace setting, introverts are often reliable, thoroughly shepherding one project to completion (Credit: Getty Images)
Wortman Ploetz says many who know her might be surprised that she describes herself as an introvert. She spends a lot of time in meetings and hands-on training sessions, but ultimately, she says, “where I draw my energy from is being in a quiet place, alone”.
Neuroscience helps back up the theory. Studies show extroverts are less sensitive to dopamine, and thus require a lot of stimulation to be sufficiently energised. Introverts are far more sensitive to the brain chemical, and over-stimulation can quickly become tiring.
In general, adds Buelow, introverts pay a price for each social interaction throughout the day. That cost dipped considerably with the shift to remote work. “They’re not recharging when they’re in the office and stimulated all the time,” she says. “Just by virtue of having the solitude at home, you have more opportunities, more balance. Your alone to social time ratio is much healthier.”
Etienne considers himself a more introverted person. Like Wortman Ploetz, he says he’s ultimately become more productive while working from home.
“I felt more in control of the management of my time,” he says. “For example, I think we’ve all been through this: you finish a meeting and you’re walking back to your desk and someone spots you and you have a conversation. And you lose the time to process the meeting you’ve just finished, and reset. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, I can have my moment of reflection in silence, without disturbance. With things like Zoom and Teams there are even ‘do not disturb’ settings; you literally can’t message me.”
Playing to an introvert’s strengths
Beyond providing more peace and quiet, the new, introvert-friendly work environment made space for those personalities to stand out in other ways.
“The physical meeting table disappeared, and with it went the hierarchical structure of the loud people gathered together at the centre and the introverts on the fringes,” says Etienne. And, he adds, those who might have been hesitant to jump into the fray in a conference room were empowered by virtual meeting spaces.
“If one has a fear of public speaking, working remotely allowed that person to speak to their expertise, maybe even to thousands of people, but they’re just seeing a green light at the top of their laptop screen,” he says.
The workplace was created by extroverts, for extroverts – Richard Etienne
Virtual meetings also tend to have fewer interruptions and overlapping speakers. “The etiquette of the platform is different,” says Buelow. “You’re much more aware of if you’re interrupting or talking on top of someone.”
A slightly slower conversational pace gives introverts the time they need to collect their thoughts. “They have more time to reflect, and then when they offer something, it’s meaningful,” she says. Plus, virtually, “there are more tools at your disposal to contribute to the conversation. It’s not just whoever can get a word in edgewise; there’s the chat, ‘raising your hand’, reactions you can send”.
Plus, extroverted, louder colleagues are less likely to dominate a virtual space than a physical one. “Around the table, some people take up more energy; they occupy more space,” says Buelow. “Virtually, everyone’s occupying the same space. It evens out the energy.”
The lasting impact
With the return to the office – and all its costly stimulation – Buelow is optimistic that lessons learned from remote work will make leaders and workplaces more accommodating to introverts. The definition of the “star employee”, she says, has changed. “Traditionally, we considered ‘contribution’ to mean talking,” she says. “I think we’ve learned that contribution can take many forms, and it’s not necessarily about the person that talks the most.”
There are tactics leaders can use to make sure more introverted employees can continue to contribute, even if the team is transitioning back to in-person work. Simple solutions, like having brain-storming sessions or small-group chats prior to discussion with the full group, can go a long way, says Buelow.
In some cases, introverted workers were better able to address client needs in a remote-work scenario (Credit: Getty Images)
“It’s a consideration about how to honour those who would like a few minutes to think quietly before sharing their thoughts,” she says. “As we go back to the office, leaders need to be asking, ‘are we offering a diversity of ways to contribute?’. There’s a ton of ways of doing that – it just requires some creativity.”
Wortman Ploetz says the lessons learned about how different personality types can best perform is “something we’re bringing back to the office. There’s a couple people on my team who need that quiet time. So, maybe they’ll book a conference room, or put up some visual indicator on their desk or door that says ‘please come back another time’. And it’s not offensive. It’s just that this person doesn’t want to be distracted. I don’t know if we would have understood that before, but we do now.”
Wortman Ploetz says she’s also maintaining some of the habits that made her so productive at home. “I’m much more diligent about when I will accept meetings on the calendar,” she says, “and I make sure there’s space between them, even if it’s 15 minutes. I think that’s a healthy boundary I wouldn’t have had without the pandemic.”