Introverts in the age of remote working
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
One thing’s for sure – office life as we knew it will never be the same again. According to a new MIT report , 34% of Americans who previously commuted to work reported that they were working from home by the first week of April due to Covid-19. As employees and their managers increasingly experience the benefits of remote working, this trend will inevitably continue. Global Workplace Analytics , currently running a survey about work-from-home participation, predicts that up to 30% of people will work from home multiple days per week by the end of 2021. In effect, the pent-up demand by employees for greater work-life flexibility has coincided with the impact of the pandemic.
There will be any number of implications from this shift, some obvious and some that will become clearer over time. Some will be sorted out through pragmatic decisions around office space, desk configurations, remote working policies, etc. and other solutions will be underpinned through increasingly clever technologies. From a coaching perspective, I’m interested in some of the human dynamics that will increasingly come to the fore.
One aspect of leadership that I often come across has to do with establishing presence and making one’s voice heard. As videoconferencing becomes more routine, an added challenge is to figure out how to improve impact in a meeting without the benefit of being physically present. Naturally, one major difference is an inability to strategically position yourself at the table using psychogeography.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review  provides a practical guide to improving presence in a virtual meeting. Issues such as focusing on your camera, framing yourself wisely, being present and mindful (when you’re on mute), avoiding distractions (when you’re not on mute!), and using a chat window are things we need to adapt to. But many things stay the same as for face-to-face meetings - proper preparation; canvassing others in advance of the meeting; anticipating agendas and potential roadblocks; posture, body language and tone of voice at the meeting; and post-meeting follow up.
I do however wonder whether remote meetings make it easier or more difficult to establish presence for those who are naturally more introverted. A thoughtful Chair will always be alert to participants who may struggle to be heard during face-to-face meetings and will find a way to ensure that everyone’s contribution is heard. That’s obviously not as easy when your face only shows up in a virtual meeting when you are talking. And therein lies the challenge – while the introvert in us may want to avoid the spotlight, that’s not going to help if your ambition to improve presence and impact!
Cultural historian Warren Susman described the shift in society in the 20th century from a ‘Culture of Character’ to a ‘Culture of Personality’. When people started embracing the latter, they focused on how others perceived them and became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. This naturally makes life more difficult for introverts.
One of the first points Susan Cain makes in her book ‘Quiet’  is that there is no all-purpose definition of introversion or extroversion. If you’ve taken a Myers-Briggs personality test (based on Carl Jung’s work) you’d be familiar with the theory that introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, while extroverts are drawn to the external life of people and activities. And that introverts recharge their batteries by being alone, while extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialise.
Research cited by Susan Cain points to the fact that introverts and extroverts have contrasting problem-solving styles – not that one is smarter than the other. Extroverts are characterised by their tendency to seek reward and have been found to have greater economic, political and hedonistic ambitions than introverts. On the other hand, introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately. The theory suggests that when it comes time to making group decisions, extroverts would do well to listen to introverts – especially when they see problems ahead, given that introverts tend to be more risk-averse.
With more use of videoconferencing, introverts may rejoice at the prospect of fewer large face-to-face team meetings where extroverts may dominate and where they may feel their energy is drained. However, they still need to find ways to bring all their insights and skills to the (virtual) table. I believe that can be achieved by playing to the natural strengths of an introvert. Firstly, spend more time on research and preparation prior to the call – a wise use of the time saved from not having to commute!
Prior to the call arrange to have one-to-ones with other key participants. Both those that will help advocate your views and those that may hold strongly differing views – the latter group with the view to refining your views and/or helping them refine theirs. Prioritise the issues you want to raise in advance of the call and use the chat window as often as necessary during the call to make sure that you don’t miss the moment before the topic changes. Pay close attention during the call to digest all relevant information. After the call make sure to follow up on the most important issues – using your attention to detail and determination to see things through to progress them in a collaborative way.
Susan Cain’s book is a wonderful reminder of the contribution that introverts can and do make to our society. And a great reminder to make sure that your voice is heard, even in situations that may be less conducive to your natural style. Remember, without introverts the world would be without the theories of Gravity and Relativity; the Cat in the Hat; E.T; Harry Potter; and Google!
1. MIT - COVID-19 and Remote Work: An Early Look at US Data [8 April 2020]
4. Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking [Penguin Books, 2012]