Noise – Naughty or Nice?

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Steve Gale wants noise to be like red wine –  a good thing in moderation.

Quiet working is the biggest challenge for office workers. At least that is what our workplace surveys tell us, and our latest one this month was no different. It revealed that in offices across three European countries it was the biggest problem. People described how noise at work prevents them from concentrating, which wastes time, causes stress and lowers productivity.

You might think that such a hot topic would be inflated by complaints about road noise, overhead aircraft or unpleasant acoustics in meeting rooms (which is something I really hate), but it’s not – this is a story about other people’s voices.

If we dig a little deeper to find out why, people quickly blame their open plan environment and their colleagues who stand around a neighbour’s desk, or the person who speaks loudly on the telephone, especially if it’s a mobile. Next they describe how they cope.

Finding a meeting room to work in is popular, and a good few say they stay at home if they need to concentrate. How many times have you heard people say ‘I get so much more done at home’? And now more than ever, people have earphones, creating their own personal sonic zone.

Solutions to noise disturbance are invariably physical, because sound is physical. What it lacks in visibility it makes up for in other measurable qualities such as pressure, frequency and range. So we provide quiet rooms with solid doors, study carrels or small enclaves set away from the hubbub, or those high backed sofas which deaden the surrounding din. We provide an array of legitimate spots away from your desk to work without being disturbed.

In practice this option is often turned upside down and the noise maker occupies the insulated space to protect his or her neighbours from distraction. They make the noise but their colleagues can’t hear. Callers and impromptu meetings migrate to a bunker, everyone else stays put. Both ways work, although I feel from my observations that the pendulum has swung in favour of quiet open plan areas with bolt-holes for noise makers – but I am happy to be corrected.

“People really don’t like silence, they prefer a lively buzz, and yet they object strongly to being disturbed by noise”

And when I say quiet open plan areas, I even need to refine that. People really don’t like silence, they prefer a lively buzz, and yet they object strongly to being disturbed by noise. So how to square that circle? It’s not simply noise that bothers us, because you can easily read a book on a noisy train or plane. Intelligible noise – nearly always language – is the sound that our brains find hard to filter out.

Noise, like temperature, is never right for everyone. It affects people differently, as illustrated by Susan Cain, a lawyer who champions the needs of introverts. She makes much of their need to be protected from excessive noise in the workplace. So I was interested to read an interview with her last year where she described how she had written her recent book in a noisy café close to her home, not in the confines of her private study. Introverts, it seems, do like to be with other people, but they like control over their privacy.

The alternative to ostracising chatty people is to mask their voices with background noise. This background can be just the normal conversation in an office. In fact, when this is at the right level, it is a near perfect solution. You get the feel of a busy and civilized space, without being able to focus on specific conversations, and you can work or converse with your colleagues in equal amounts. But this level of ambient chatter is very hard to guarantee, so you can inject it artificially in the form of random sound that comes in different colours – white, pink, brown, red and so on – and I think the human version of brown noise is the privacy that Susan Cain finds in her café.

So choice of settings can help, and maybe local control too, which is why earphones work so well. With a combination of good design, technology and office protocols, we really can isolate two perennially conflicting activities. Let’s knock quiet working off the top of the workplace problem list.

Steve Gale is Head of Business Intelligence at M Moser Associates.