Open offices were supposed to usher in a new era of collaborative working. Instead, they've eroded any semblance of office privacy, forcing office-dwellers to listen to every word of their co-workers' calls and conversations. But open offices are not disappearing anytime soon. You can pack lots of people into an open office, and in any case, open office-loving companies still cling to the hope that sticking everyone in one giant room will yield creative ideas that would never have been uncovered otherwise (and maybe they are uncovered, on occasion).
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, sympathizes with the open-office detractors. And she wants to help.
After the TED talk two years ago that turned her into the celebrity champion for introverts everywhere, Cain met Jim Hackett, the CEO of furniture maker Steelcase. They hit it off immediately. Now, the two are teaming up to create spaces in open offices that are tailored to introverts, and anyone else looking for an oasis of quiet in a bustling open office. The furniture launch is part of Quiet Revolution, an initiative announced by Cain this past week at the 2014 TED conference that will offer a training program to assist quiet children, a leadership program for quiet adults, and an introvert-focused online media hub, among other things.
Cain is not the biggest fan of open offices. "I think they're disasters, actually," she told me after her most recent TED talk last week. She then amended her statement: "I think they can be wonderful if they have enough pockets of privacy in them. In many of the open offices I see, it's just a gigantic room crammed with people and desks. Too many people are mentally suffering."
Which is not to say that Cain doesn't appreciate the value of a little background noise—she wrote her entire book while sitting in a cafe in Greenwich Village. But while coffee shops offer the freedom to come and go, open offices often don't give workers the option to have a little private time.
The office spaces being designed by Cain and Steelcase will be quiet areas where workers can go to be alone. There will be two kinds of spaces: one aimed at focused work, and another aimed at respite.
The first space will be completely enclosed (though workers can see out to the larger office), well-lit, and will contain a desk. "These are spaces where people can innovate," she says. "Solitude is a crucial ingredient in innovation." There will be comfortable furniture, and artifacts that are, according to Cain, cozy and personalized, without feeling too corporate. The resting space will have room for lounging and even sleep. "Maybe you'll put out your yoga mat, lie on the couch, take a nap," she says.
Further details on the spaces aren't available yet; the first prototypes of Cain and Steelcases's quiet spaces will roll out in time for the NeoCon Design Conference in June. Cain has been meeting with Steelcase once a week since coming up with the basic design principles for the furniture, developing the products further. "Even what's shown at NeoCon is going to evolve over time," Cain says. "This is a really important part of the workplace, so it's going to need some iteration to get it right."