Managing Workplace Noise with Mobility and Norms
The level of noise in the workplace is something that comes up frequently in our work and comes up just as frequently in popular media and academic publications alike. There is a familiar storyline to these articles: in search of collaboration (or perhaps just plain cost efficiency), workers are moved to an open plan environment and both their satisfaction and productivity suffer.
These negative effects are indeed one possibility: Navai and Veitch performed a literature review that linked higher noise levels with lower satisfaction. On the other hand, Zijlstra et al found that productivity increased (but at greater physical and psychological cost) when people “interrupted” each other. At the same time Jessup and Connelly found that groups that interacted more frequently solved problems better (but with increased fatigue and distraction). And Owen-Smith and Brownstein et al found that proximity improved collaboration for researchers at the University of Michigan and Harvard, respectively.
So, it is as simple as “noise and interruptions are bad for you but good for your organization”? Perhaps, but every organization must strike a sustainable balance between its needs and those of its people. Similarly, we must each find a balance between how we make ourselves available to coworkers for coordination, feedback, and inspiration while being able think and complete our own work.
Striking this balance is far from easy. There is also a tendency to think that the way to manage noise and distractions in the workplace is through physical means such as building more/higher walls or introducing technology. Yes, Hongisto has shown that white noise improves satisfaction and Lewis et al have shown that pink noise improves the ability to focus. But, no, neither low nor high cubes are the answer as Jensen has shown that satisfaction is lowered by adding cube walls and so it is better to maintain visibility with co-workers.
In fact, the storyline about workers in open plan coping with distractions needs to be updated not only to reflect this nuance but also because it rarely considers two key ways that people and organizations can strike the right balance:
- by choosing the right setting to work in based on the work to be done, and
- by collectively setting norms and protocols with co-workers about acceptable behaviors and sound-levels.
The diagram above depicts a spectrum for the “default” setting for workplace in an open plan, as determined by both norms and what technology is provided (or isn’t). This assumes a workplace that has the requisite variety of places to work to support the diverse sets of tasks and workstyles. Understanding the overall atmosphere at the extremes is straight-forward: in a quiet environment, everyone is there to complete tasks that are almost entirely individual and concentrative (such as a legal department) while in a lively environment the atmosphere is buzzing as nearly all of the work is interactive and audible (such as a trading floor).
These really are the extremes. Most environments fall somewhere in the middle, and this is where gets more complicated. This is where mobility and protocols can play a role. A “hushed” environment is mostly quiet with the occasional muted conversation, but crucially, people pick themselves up (and likely their laptops) to go to a phone room, a lounge, or a meeting room in order take a long call or have an extended conversation – it’s mostly quiet so you leave to make noise. By contrast, a “humming” environment is somewhat lively – tolerant of conversation but not so much so that you can’t concentrate at all. In this environment, you go to a quiet room, a diner booth, or a focus room (or work from home that morning) in order to seek quiet, say to finish up that report.
The crucial steps in each of these scenarios is:
- to realize that most people are no longer tethered to their desks and so can choose the right setting for the work to be done
- to recognize that people can talk to each other to establish protocols like prohibitions on speakerphone calls in the open or when to take a spontaneous conversation to a room or to establish signals for when/when not to interrupt each other
As each organization seeks to balance between its needs and those of its people, and each person seeks to balance between his productivity and his colleague’s, everyone can benefit from not getting caught up in the hyperbole of the latest article, from not rushing to build/raise cubicle walls, and by capitalizing on mobility and intentional cultural norms.