For the HR and office managers out there, it is an acknowledged fact of life that it’s simply impossible to set the thermostat at a temperature that will keep everyone happy: there will always be some staff who are too hot or too cold.
But what about the noise level in the office — is it too high or too low? And who should be in charge of setting the volume?
Like many tech companies, we work in one large, open-plan office space — where staff outnumber desk phones 2:1 — and what steady noise there is comes from keyboards producing lines of code rather than the ringing of incoming calls.
Sounds ideal, you might think. The perfect space to get some work done without distraction. And yet, in reality, a business environment that is this quiet can have a number of drawbacks.
‘It’s oh so quiet…’
When the noise levels are low, it seems to make some staff unwilling to start a conversation with a colleague. Whether work related or personal, a lot of people seem to prefer starting a chat using Slack (our IM service) for fear of distracting or interrupting someone.
This effect is compounded when we add into the mix the fact that a lot of staff like wearing headphones at their desk. Is there anything more embarrassing than starting a conversation with someone only to realise they’ve been completely oblivious the whole time? The result of all these hushed tones is that we find ourselves in a vicious cycle: quiet – headphones – instant message – no chat – quiet, to repeat ad nauseam!
The impact of this on workplace culture can be massive. For new starters in particular, not only can it be extremely intimidating to try and start a conversation with someone if most of the staff are heads down at their desk, but also it takes longer to get to know people if you can’t casually drop into an ongoing group conversation.
The result? An office that is definitely too quiet for most staff and for the rest, to whom the silence holds appeal, the annoyance of being distracted by noise when it does occur, as it sticks out so plainly for all to hear!
Pin-drops and coffee shops
This issue is evidently not a new one: “when someone gets a telephone call it's completely overwhelming compared with the silence that went before”, reported staff at the BBC’s White City offices in 1999.
In fact, so concerned were the BBC about the stress caused to staff by working in near silence — a condition dubbed ‘pin-drop syndrome’ — that they shelled out £2,300 on a machine to play noises simulating a ‘normal office environment’, including murmuring conversation and occasional bursts of laughter.
While this decision may have attracted ridicule at the time, research has since verified suggestions that rather than low-volume levels (around 20dB), moderate noise levels closer to 70dB or even 80dB can lead to improved performance in creative cognition.
This is supported by a more recent study into consumer behaviours, which agreed that a moderate level of noise can provide just enough distraction to jar a person into more abstract thought, ‘leading to higher creativity’. It goes without saying, however, that too high a volume can result in too severe a distraction!
This might explain why working in coffee shops has become such a popular option. The moderate distraction provided by the milk frother, clinking cups and low-level chat could be just the answer to stimulate your grey cells to do their best work.
And if you can’t get out to a coffee shop, you can now bring the ambience to you, courtesy of the guys at Coffitivity, where you can find different tracks to recreate the coffee shop atmosphere wherever you lay your laptop.
‘But hang on’, I can almost hear you saying, ‘isn’t this all a bit depressing, playing fake mid-level noise, when we should just be creating it ourselves through conversation in the workplace?’
What is the actual fix for this in terms of a real-life, working culture? How do you achieve that perfect level of coffee shop-esque background noise?
For us, I’m hoping the following will help:
- Encouraging staff to get up from their desks and walk over to people to ask a question, rather than resorting to sending a message; and if you’re on the receiving end of a message, breaking the chain and walking over to give the answer! The more conversations we have going on, the less they stick out for everyone to hear.
- Creating protected ‘noisy’ areas. Over the last few years, open-plan office design has acknowledged the need to incorporate quiet spaces, areas in which employees can go to be mindful, and these have been reflected in furniture solutions like acoustic pods. For us, if the office floorspace is generally quiet, it’s important to offer a space for employees to be noisy. That’s where the kitchen is key. In the morning we can have stand-ups there and catch up with colleagues while we make coffee; at lunchtime we can play Tekken 7 (and curse our losses with appropriate furore).
- Offering employees the opportunity to work from home when they need specific time to do ‘quiet’ work. That way, when staff need to tackle a significant piece of work which requires complete focus, they can do so at home in peace and their colleagues in the office can be encouraged to be noisy without worrying about causing a distraction.
By reminding staff about these three points and setting a positive example (by bounding around the office making noise) I’m hoping that we can strike the right note with the office volume, and hit the spot that Burkus describes as the ‘“Goldilocks” zone of just the right amount of noise, but not too much’
About Felicity Winkley
Felicity Winkley is HR Manager at TotallyMoney, a private equity backed fintech startup in East London’s Tech City helping thousands of people take control of their finances, protect their credit rating and unlock their best credit match options, every day. Felicity has a PhD from UCL and a background in delivering outreach in museums and engaging new audiences; skills she now enjoys using to promote employee engagement and staff well-being, with the aim of creating a fantastic workplace culture.