Quest for Quiet

Teaming up with a best-selling author, Steelcase creates work spaces for those seeking refuge from the constant din of the open-plan office.

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Steelcase CEO Jim Keane and author Susan Cain, both self-acknowledged introverts, designed work areas for others like themselves.

Courtesy GS Studios/Steelcase

When asked how his company came to partner with a best-selling author on a product that, unusually, bears her name—the Susan Cain Quiet Spaces, debuting at this year’s Neocon—Steelcase CEO Jim Keane tells a story. “I was at a conference of senior executives, and one of them said, ‘When we have something really important to do, we hold an off-site meeting.’ Just think about that,” he says, sounding amazed. “You spend all this money on your workplace, and when a critical decision needs to be made, you go someplace else. Clearly, there’s something wrong.”

What’s wrong can be summarized in a word: distraction. “It’s people’s top complaint in the office,” says Allan Smith, the company’s global vice president of product marketing. “They can’t find a place to think.” He cites a survey stating that “thirty-one percent of full-time U.S. workers leave their employer’s primary location to get work done.” The culprit, no surprise, is the open-plan layout—that too-extreme response to the Balkanization of employees in offices and cubicles and the desire to encourage collaboration. “You have these two opposing things happening: workers choosing to flee the chaos, and CEOs feeling like building an office culture is the next big thing and wanting people together,” Keane says.

Enter Susan Cain. The author of the 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway Books), Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer, drew on extensive research—and her own nature—to write about how American culture values extroversion and group engagement over solitude and reflection. “I was driving to a mall on a weekend, and Susan was being interviewed on National Public Radio,” Keane recalls. “I’d never heard of her, but a lot of things she was saying really resonated. At Steelcase, we’re always studying how the office can support different kinds of individuals, and Susan was talking about how, as an introvert, she felt the open-plan workplace was failing people like herself.”

Cain and Steelcase were natural collaborators—both hoped to nudge the privacy-versus-communality pendulum back toward the middle.

As it happened, Cain was a scheduled speaker at the 2012 TED conference, at which Keane—at the time Steelcase’s president and COO—and then-CEO Jim Hackett were both in attendance. After listening to Cain’s talk—where she observed that “a third to half of the population are introverts” and “solitude is a crucial ingredient, often, to creativity,” lamenting the open-plan workplace in which “we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers”—Keane and Hackett sought her out. “Jim shared that he’s an introvert himself, and for years he’d been concerned about the erosion of focus and privacy in the office,” Cain says of the meeting. “I instantly recognized that Steelcase was a kindred spirit.”

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Jun 2, 2014 11:39 pm
 Posted by  James Hunt

Great write up.

Jun 4, 2014 01:21 pm
 Posted by  The non-toxic designer

As a person with attention deficit, I can confirm that the noise level and visual stimulation in most offices and public spaces is enough to send some of us over the edge. It makes it difficult to focus, learn, absorb what we are trying to learn and slows creativity to a crawl. Having a choice of spaces within the office would help everyone achieve their maximum level of productivity and creativity, improving profitability for the company and reducing fatigue and frustration for the employees. Lord knows we are not all made alike and thank goodness for that! It's not a wonder the trend to work from home is taking off. It's the only place you can control the noise level and get work done!

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