How can Introverts and Extroverts Work in Isolation?

Physical distancing is hard on everyone. Here are some tips to navigate our new normal.

Even as certain states and countries look to loosen confinement measures, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we socialize for the foreseeable future. Yet after almost two months spent hunkered down in our homes, introverts and extroverts alike feel like they are at a breaking point.

In a sense, introverts are well-trained for physical  distancing. They are able to perform tasks with minimal external stimulus and they recharge their batteries by spending time alone. The current need to isolate may feel significantly more comfortable for an introvert than the routine pressure to go out.

Extroverts, on the other hand, are unfamiliar with the quiet isolation that introverts are naturally inclined to adopt. They crave the social contact that we cannot currently seek out and replenish their energy by exchanging with others.  One of the characteristic of extroverts is the need for extrovert breaks, something Karl has written about in an earlier issue of the Wharton Leadership Digest.  The central definition of the difference between introverts and extroverts is their response to stimulation.  Extroverts actually seek out stimulation if they feel under stimulated, which they are considerably more apt to feel than introverts on average.   Karl will spend a couple of hours in his office, ironically writing a book on introverts as leaders, after a couple of hours he can’t take it anymore, he really does feel a need for being with people. As a professor he has an almost ending supply of students he is teaching just one floor down in the undergraduate study/meeting area.  He pops down there for 15 minutes and recharges his batteries, similarly to the way an introvert, after being with people might go for a solitary walk or don their noise cancelling headphones to escape what they find an excess of stimulation.

Introversion and extroversion exist on a bell curve, meaning that well there are people on the far ends of the bell curve, most people are just a bit introverted or extroverted. Few are the extroverts who would want to spend every waking hour submerged in a crowd of people or the introverts who are truly happy  at the current absence of any social contact. Extroverted and introverted traits tend to evolve over the course of our lives, particularly if we become more senior leaders and we often need to adapt our behaviors to our environment and even the national culture we live in.The COVID-19 pandemic has upset both introvert and extrovert habits, based on the last two months of experience, observation and many conversations these tips may be useful as we continue to flatten the curve.

  1. Keep your cadence. Instilling your life in isolation with some familiarity can help to mitigate the strangeness of it all. Even introverts are bound to be a little disturbed by the almost complete lack of interaction that defines our lives in confinement. Keeping up with your routines may mean setting your alarm clock a little earlier to work out in the morning, having your Monday coffee while catching up with a work friend on Zoom, or putting on your office wear first thing in the day. Make your workspace functional and enjoyable. Arrange all of the things you would have at hand in your usual office space: pen and paper, your computer and phone, some water and a hot beverage. It’s worth taking the time to do this. For video conferencing purposes, choose a new background that represents your city or perhaps somewhere you’d like to travel to one day to conceal a messy home background.  

2. Plan your day. As we live through an unprecedented crisis, it isn’t just the structured introvert’s mind that can benefit from some consistency. When it seems like you can control nothing else, setting up a schedule for your day can both increase your productivity and help to ease anxiety around the pandemic. Setting goals for the day and the week ahead will help to give you a clearer sense of purpose as you settle down to work in your home office. When planning your day, make sure to schedule in breaks for lunch and other activities. For those isolating with partners or families, those breaks may help establish boundaries between your work life and the needs of those around you. You may also choose to use these breaks to connect virtually with others outside of your home or to simply unplug.  Some have told us that they dress up for work and then go walk around their backyard and come back in house, completing their commute mentally, if not so much physically. Finally, try as much as possible to keep free time in the evenings where you do not work unless there truly is an emergency.

3. Connect with others. The loneliness of physical  distancing can have mental and physiological effects on us all, including individuals who might not typically suffer from spending extended periods of time alone. People are finding creative substitutes for all sorts of activities that can no longer happen in person like virtual board games nights, karaoke sessions, dance groups, and happy hours. Limiting the amount of stimulus by exchanging with others from the comfort of one’s couch makes for a far more relaxing setting for introverts than a noisy bar or family event, which are likely to drain their batteries. For introverts, while these interactions don’t fully substitute the physical sense of community that they are accustomed to, they can provide a much needed extrovert break from the silence of working from home.  For very extroverted people, like Karl, we really do need our extrovert breaks.  Here in Montreal, we are allowed to go outside and chat with people, along as we keep an appropriate physical  distance. This has been a godsend for Karl. 

4. Protect your calendar. Be wary not to saturate your schedule with virtual gatherings: introverts, ambiverts, and extroverts all need occasional quiet time to themselves. It’s possible to experience the same battery-draining effect of excessive socializing even in virtual exchanges.  We find virtual meetings by video to be at least 33% more tiring than holding the same meeting in person  INSEAD’s Gianpiero Petriglieri suggests that it is because we have to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language;, he argues that, “paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.”  We agree! The need to focus on the camera and pay full attention is draining and we miss the occasional clever aside with the people sitting beside us and even a friendly smile or wave to colleagues across the room.

5. Unwind as you normally would. Extroverts and introverts alike need rest from social interactions, even when they are virtual. Unwinding from the seemingly endless Zoom calls, screen time, and constant pressure to keep up with the news by taking some time away from it all is essential. Meditating, exercising, journaling, reading, or cooking alone are all ways to distance oneself from the constant noise. This is especially true for those isolating with families or roommates: the noise of multiple people confined to one space can be too much, even for an extrovert. We all need quiet time to reflect and think. For our neighbours with small kids it is very draining at times, particularly when we talk to friends who live big cities like Singapore, New York City or London where they tend to have less space. But even our neighbors in Montreal with a bit bigger homes and backyards find the continual presence of children and the need to help with their education incredibly demanding.  We need breaks!

6. Cut yourself some slack. Physical  distancing is hard on everyone, and neither introverts nor extroverts are better equipped to weather the storm. It’s normal to struggle to be productive or to feel like you aren’t yourself. A change in routines and the absence of prolonged and meaningful social contact is a burden that introverts and extroverts are shouldering during this pandemic.

About the Authors:

Karl Moore, Kat Garcia and Marie Labrosse. Karl is an Associate Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, and Marie is a master’s student in English Literature, both at McGill University. Kat Garcia works for BCG in New York City at BCG Digital Ventures.