It’s not just a women’s issue.
Granted, that’s how many of us are framing last month’s decision by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! Inc., to end telecommuting and require all employees to report to the office. It ignited a firestorm of controversy over whether Mayer, a working mother herself, has backstabbed the sisterhood. Columnist Kathleen Parker called it the latest iteration of the “mommy war.”
But there’s another reason we should be debating Mayer’s policy: Some people simply work better alone.
My colleagues are rolling their eyes now, so let me rush to provide full disclosure. I’ve worked mainly from home for more than 20 years, going into the office just enough that they don’t give my desk away. I don’t do it because it’s more convenient. I don’t do it because I hate the commute. I do it because I’m an introvert.
The word is not a synonym for “shy,” though as a boy, I was that, too. But where shyness is an outsized fear of other people’s disapproval or of social embarrassment, to be an introvert is to be inward turning, more at home in small, intimate groups than large, boisterous ones. It is to prefer the quiet to the loud, reflection to exhortation, solitude to socializing.
For years, I struggled with that, wondered why I prefer the rainy afternoon spent watching old movies or reading a book to the sunny afternoon at a backyard barbecue watching people do the Electric Slide. Then, last year, I chanced upon a book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain. It was the first time anyone had ever explained me to me. Turns out I’m not the only one. Turns out introversion is perfectly normal.
Except that our culture is biased toward extroverts. It’s a bias reflected both in Mayer’s decision and in the attagirls she has received from the likes of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He argues, as she did, that collaboration – “synergy” is the buzzword – produces the best results. This is conventional wisdom in American business. Indeed, Cain notes that per-person square footage in offices has shrunk by more than half since the 1970s in the belief that “open space” floor plans that force people together facilitate teamwork and thus productivity.
For some of us, it probably does. But not for all. The savvy CEO will understand this, will realize that the alone space is where introverts find the stuff that powers their best work and will – wherever practical – accommodate that.
And as Cain points out, quiet people, left to their own devices, have produced rather significant moments in culture, science and politics. Her list of their contributions includes: the theory of relativity, “1984,” “Schindler’s List,” Charlie Brown, Google and the Montgomery bus boycott.
All that said, I have a sinking fear that after this column, I’ll never be invited to another backyard barbecue again. Good friends: Please invite me. I’ll even bring the banana pudding. But at the same time, please forgive me if I leave early.
As Cain notes, it is not that the introvert doesn’t enjoy the company of others. Rather, it’s that after a certain point, it leaves him feeling physically drained. That’s who I am – less Bill Clinton than Al Gore – and I’ve given myself permission to stop fighting it.
Mayer may or may not be a traitor to modern mommyhood. But she has certainly bought into the one-size-fits-all mentality that says productivity and creativity are found when colleagues meet at the watercooler – and only there. She is wrong and I am proof.
This week, I’ll go into the office to make sure my desk is still there. I’ll kibitz with my friends. But when it’s time to get down to work I’ll slip on the noise-canceling headphones, block out the world and seek what people like me always instinctively seek: a quiet and alone inner space where it is possible to simply, finally…