Viewpoint: Introverts and Extraverts in the Time of COVID-19
by Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
If you're working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, you and your co-workers may be starting to feel the social effects of remote working. You may be on a plethora of video and phone calls throughout the day. Do some people's communication and manners rub you the wrong way? Here are a few considerations that can ease your interactions.
Extraverts are people who get energized by being around other people. They seek out opportunities to engage others and thrive when working with others, at least compared to introverts. In a more extreme form, they may be uncomfortable being alone for any length of time.
In the time of COVID-19, extraverts are deprived of the physical presence of their colleagues. There are no cubicles or offices to visit, informal chats in the coffee areas or regular meetings in a conference room. They are missing the interactions big and small that really get them going. Being deprived of those built-in connections with others is a real loss for extraverts. They will probably prefer video meetings over phone calls, which they prefer to text (e-mail, chat or Slack) for that dose of connection.
Living alone during this time can be a real hardship. While sheltering-in-place, they may have no in-person contact with other people, unless they go to a store or walk a dog. They are deprived of something that, for them, is emotionally akin to food. Video chats and phone calls are unlikely to provide the same energy lift.
Extraverts who live with others have the advantage of the physical presence of others, but depending on who those people are (e.g., children, sick relative, or roommate or partner who is out of work or having a hard time), the lift may be offset by juggling the demands of work and the demands of home.
Introverts are energized by being alone. That's how they recharge. In the workplace, they seek out quiet places to work alone: the empty conference room, a quiet office. Interacting with people all day, as in a typical workplace, can be exhausting.
In the time of COVID-19, introverts may initially find that working from home is a relief, a reprieve from the more frequent interactions in a typical workplace, particularly an open-plan office. However, working from home has new challenges for introverts. Video calls can feel intrusive; there's too much eye contact. If they have large screens or laptops, other people are simply too big, or there are too many of them. It can feel overwhelming.
Introverts who live with others during this time may find that challenging. It can be hard to get real alone time, particularly if they are on numerous video calls, or they live in a space that doesn't provide much opportunity to be alone. Commuting time, which may have allowed some alone time with or without strangers, is gone. Now, when introverts live with others, and space is tight or children sprawl throughout the home, there may be no room of one's own.
Introverts enjoy some limited types of social interaction, but once they've had enough social time, they're ready to leave. Now, circumstances may require that they continue to engage—such as a day full of video meetings for work. It's worth noting that introversion is different from shyness, in which conflicted individuals want social interaction but also are anxious about such interactions. Introverts have no such conflict.
For introverts, phone calls may be preferred to video calls, and communicating via text may be preferred to phone calls, when that makes sense for the task at hand. Introverts may want to turn off their cameras on video calls.
Most people are neither extremely introverted nor extraverted. They are somewhere in between.
Given we're in this for the long haul—a marathon, not a sprint—we need solutions, which start with encouraging employees to develop self-awareness. What is the type and range of optimal communication with colleagues and partners given the demands of the job, their level of introversion/extraversion and their current living situation? Would they be better off with some of the contact via phone calls rather than video? Phone calls rather than e-mail or Slack? Perhaps extraverts can seek out other extraverts?
The cramped spaces most employees are working and living in also mean that we're not moving in the way we would at work. Most of us are sitting (or standing) in the same place with much more constrained movements while we're on our computers. Most of us don't have to walk far to get our coffee or lunch. We're not walking to the conference room. It's as if we're chained to our workstations at home. For both introverts and extraverts, I've been encouraging people to vary where they work within their homes, depending on what's available; to move their "workstation" around: a bed, a chair, a different chair, or standing up. The uniformity of the experience at their workstations can itself make the day seem unending and amplify either the social deprivation for the extravert or the social intrusiveness for the introvert.
Stela Lupushor, management consultant and founder of Reframe Work, urges managers to "help employees to realize that identity switching can also be taxing on the emotional state." When working in the office, the commute time allowed us to switch from our "work" persona to "home" persona. That switching now happens every single time an employee's child walks by his or her workstation or the dog barks, and it can deplete the employee's emotional equilibrium faster. Sheer awareness of this fact can help employees develop coping strategies, such as scheduling breaks, "off limits" hours and time for nonwork activities.
Encourage employees to pace themselves. It's wonderful that workplaces are creating virtual social hours, but, like their physical counterparts, make sure it's OK for employees not to attend, or to show up for a little while and leave early. Feeling pressure to attend and stay the whole time will use up the introverts' bandwidth for social engagement.
Judy Heyboer, executive coach, HR consultant and former CHRO for Genentech, noted, "There is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach that works for managing in a crisis. Knowing your people's behavioral style is essential to crafting an approach that optimizes both comfort and productivity." Managers can help by first being aware of their own introversion/extroversion level and recognizing that direct reports will have different levels. An introvert manager may prefer written communication or phone, but some direct reports may want to check in by video. An extravert manager may want a lot of video meetings, but some direct reports aren't enthusiastic about it. A mix is probably best, but managers should check in with their direct reports and specifically ask about preferences for different types of meetings or information flow. Encourage managers to be sensitive to what their team members prefer.
Video may be the preferred modality for team meetings, but make the meetings count. Encourage the meeting leaders to be thoughtful about agendas. Make sure agendas are distributed in advance—and that those expected to attend have a reason to be there, they know why they are there, and they know how they are expected to contribute.
Tunji Oki, Ph.D., industrial/organizational psychologist at Google, noted, "with the influx of stress that extraverts and introverts are facing during this time due to work-related adjustments or personal situations, and the inability for employees to take true vacations, managers should be more transparent about allowing their employees to take paid 'mental health' days as needed to maintain their productivity level."
As we must prepare for sheltering-in-place to last for weeks in this phase, and likely again in the autumn, we have to experiment in order to do this better. And we have to communicate with each other.
Originally published April 29, 2020 by SHRM.com. Robin Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist, author, executive coach, and CEO of Live in Their World, a company that addresses issues of bias and incivility in the workplace through virtual reality.