What if our ways of working weren’t working? Of course, they suited some – the most vocal, usually, which is why those conventions have been so stubbornly resistant to change – but not all.
The uncomfortable (but conspicuous) truth is that we are an industry set up by extroverts for extroverts. Now the old world has been turned on its head, there’s one section of the industry that might just be quietly thriving: its introverts.
Confessing to being an introvert in the advertising industry is like a chef admitting that they like their steaks well done. I remember doing the Myers-Briggs course at my previous agency and being the only "I" in a room full of "E"s. I realised then that this small training group probably represented a rough cross-section of the agency and, indeed, our industry. For every five "E"s, there is probably just one "I".
The way this industry is set up rewards extroversion – a point made brilliantly by Andy Jex on this site four years ago, when he wrote: "An introvert struggles in today’s team-based, open-plan culture, where talking first, talking fast and talking loud are the name of the game."
I’ve spent my career surrounded by brilliant, highly visible people who seem to form everlasting friendships with people they bump into in the café. People who breeze into networking events as if they were put on just for them.
But these networking events are no longer happening and the café is closed. Which means that extroverts are being deprived of their energy source. This is why today’s environment is a fascinating one.
Many of the extroverts I’ve spoken to are finding working from home difficult, stressful and surprisingly exhausting, while the introverts are – whisper it – quietly enjoying the experience.
It’s not just the bookends of the day where we’re no longer stuck in someone’s armpit on the Tube. The way in which we are working is also filling us with energy. According to Gloria Mark’s study The Cost of Interrupted Work, we get interrupted every 11 minutes at work on average. Looking at the Myers-Briggs definition of an "E", these interruptions and interactions (while perhaps not efficient) may increase an extrovert’s energy. But for those in the "I" camp, they may be having the opposite effect by draining their energy levels.
While we are still being bombarded with Zoom and Teams conference calls, it is more possible now to cut off external distractions and work on something in your "inner world". We are in control of being able to recharge and to work in a way that suits our personalities.
The best leaders appreciate this. Vicki Maguire’s first words to Havas were a rallying cry to all: "If you’re an introvert, I have a corner. If you’re an extrovert, I have a stage. I will find a space for you to do your most brilliant and best." Similarly, in her leaving speech to Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Dame Cilla Snowball told us to look out for the introverts. But it is not the norm. To paraphrase Jex, whom I worked with at Saatchi & Saatchi, we have created a culture that works brilliantly for some of us, but which doesn’t get the best out of the rest.
Lockdown has forced us to change how we work – much of which will endure in the post-Covid-19 landscape. It is also an opportunity for us to observe how different people work in different ways and consider the circumstances in which they thrive. If we don’t work harder to respect this once we’re back in the office, we must accept an inconvenient truth: that we are underutilising an entire subsection of our workforce not through misfortune but by design.
Fail to change and we will fail to attract introverts in the first place, losing some brilliant thinkers, doers and creators to competing – and ultimately more inclusive – industries. We will be a talent-based industry that has alienated half the available talent.
Will Hooker is new business director at Havas London.