September 17, 2019

Managing Workplace Noise with Mobility and Norms

Designing Experiences

by Elliot Felix

The level of noise in the workplace is something that comes up frequently in our work and is discussed 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), people are moved to an open-plan environment and both their satisfaction and productivity suffer. In this post, we add some nuance, and we provide two strategies for managing noise in the workplace.

We’ve seen the trends about how the academic workplace is changing. We’ve all heard stories about how noise-canceling headphones are worn (and often bemoaned) or that people stay home and come into the office less and less. What we don’t hear often enough is that not all interruptions are bad – everyone has to mix working with others and focusing on their own work to some degree. We also don’t hear enough about two concrete things you can do to flip the script to have happy, productive people: give them choices in where they work within a diverse ecosystem of different spaces and then clearly define the norms for these spaces that they are used in ways that align with what people expect.

Office of Human Resources, University of Minnesota

What does the Research Show About the Impact of Space on People?

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 when people interrupted each other (but at greater physical and psychological cost). At the same time, Jessup and Connelly found that groups that interacted more frequently solved problems better (but with increased fatigue and distraction). Owen-Smith and Brownstein et. al. found that proximity improved collaboration for researchers at the University of Michigan and Harvard, respectively. Bernstein found that in open offices, people can interact less and email more.

So, is it 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 to think and complete our own work.

Open workspace at MIT Sloan School of Management

Getting Focus and Interruption in Balance

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 like white noise. Yes, Hongisto has shown that white noise improves satisfaction but 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 an 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 enabling people to choose 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. As the university workplaces become more flexible, both aspects become even more important.

Policies and Procedures: Defining Workplace Noise Norms

The diagram below depicts a spectrum for the “default” setting for a workplace in an open plan, as determined by both norms and what technology is provided. This is a workplace that has the requisite variety of places to work to support the diverse sets of tasks and workstyles of knowledge work. 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).

Workplace Noise Norms

These really are the extremes. Most environments fall somewhere in the middle though, and this is where gets 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 booth, or a focus room (or work from home that morning) in order to seek quiet, say to finish up that report – it’s mostly lively, so you leave to seek quiet.

Workspaces at University of Michigan’s Weiser Hall

Noise Management in the Workplace: Tips for Moving Forward

To move forward and better manage the noise within your college or university’s workplace, there are two crucial things to keep in mind:

  1. Realize that most people are no longer tethered to their desks and so can choose the right setting for the work to be done, and that the workplace needs a full range of settings for work: cafes, lounges, booths, phone booths, meeting rooms, quiet rooms, and everything in between like you’d find in a great coworking space. Of course, beyond the diversity of spaces, people need the right technology, HR policies, and management styles to support them as well.
  2. Recognize that they 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 them. The best way to do this is to get people using the space to define their own norms – first establishing shared values and principles and then going through concrete scenarios of what’s okay (e.g., having a two minute conversation at a colleague’s desk) and what’s not (e.g., taking a video call at your desk).

As every college and university seeks to balance between its needs and those of its people, and each person seeks to balance between his productivity and her colleague’s, everyone can benefit from not getting caught up in hyperbole in the latest article, not rushing to cubicle walls, and by giving people greater agency in where they work and defining the shared the norms for those spaces.

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