Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Introverts of the workplace are having a moment. The office furniture company Steelcase teamed up with Susan Cain, author of the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, to create a series of five spaces that address the need for more focus and privacy at work.

The collection, called Susan Cain Quiet Spaces, comes right in the middle of a long-established era in which open, non-hierarchical workplaces are the norm at any startup. Private offices and cubicles are, increasingly, seen as the nostalgic stuff of Mad Men. But everyone knows how frustrating it is to take a phone call that requires privacy or to get serious creative work done amidst the distractions that naturally pop up in an open-plan office. “In the past we would talk about the benefits of collaboration, visibility, and the ability to show people work in progress,” explains Steelcase’s application design manager Vanessa Bradley. “There is a message here about balance.”

The company grounds its designs in two workplace surveys that looked at privacy and well-being. Of the 39,000 North American workers polled in the survey, 95% of workers reported the need for quiet spaces that allow for confidential conversations. This could be calling your doctor or a spot for a conference call with a key client.

Susan Cain looks at the contemporary office and offers a critique. “It is an impoverished way of looking at space,” she says pointedly. “I felt very strongly that there is a whole emotional range of human experience that is not included in the workplace.”

The five spaces offered by Steelcase vary from 48 to 100 square feet; the larger spaces are collaborative. The space names evoke the nature of the experience: Be Me, Studio, Mind Share, Flow, Green Room. Each sits somewhere on the sensory scale between a Zen garden and a writing studio. Surprisingly, perhaps, for an office furniture company, Steelcase is less concerned with the bottom line of efficiency or productivity, and instead describes the collection in somewhat New Age terminology. But how do you translate such concept-driven terms as “well-being,” “authenticity,” “mindfulness,” “vitality,” and “belonging” into design?

According to Cain, the spaces are intended to offer respite–they are places to relax, meditate, nap, or focus. “They are cozy and inviting,” she says. “Unlike the private office of yesteryear, workers flow freely in and out of these shared spaces.” The Be Me, for instance, offers alone time via controllable and sound-masking wall finishes. It comes with the company’s Lagunitas lounger and room for a yoga mat. Suggested finishes in all the rooms are tactile; the company will work with clients to develop a materials palette that blends into the overall officescape.

The two-person Mind Share is geared to intimate conversation and, in the words of Steelcase, “entrusted confidence.” It comes with dimmable lights, a big table, integrated digital screens, and whiteboards for brainstorming. “People are afraid to talk about intimacy in the workplace because of the implications. But we need to make space for it,” says Cain. “One of the problems with open-plan offices is that people are less likely to make friends because they feel like they will be overheard, but friendship requires the exchange of confidences.”

If Susan Cain Quiet Spaces sounds like a surefire way for the workplace to devolve into catnaps and downward dogs, Cain and Bradley stress that introversion is good for business, and cite the positive effects that meditation has on productivity. “The more employee well-being is nurtured, the better their work,” Cain asserts.