Many years ago, I worked in a large open-plan office afflicted with what has been labeled by work psychologists as Pin Drop Syndrome. Our office was so unnaturally quiet that not only could you hear a pin drop, you could tell who dropped it and from what height.
The silence was so intense that any sound made by one of the three dozen accountants, book-keepers and writers who inhabited the room would prompt all keyboard chatter to pause, while thirty-six pairs of ears turned to listen to whatever new audial hell was being imposed on them: a loud phone call from a surly client, the secretary using the Sellotape, someone trying to unwrap a cough candy without making the wrapper crinkle.
The coffee grinder sounded like a wood chipper going off in church. I once found myself apologizing to my neighbor for eating a grape too loudly, the office was that quiet.
Even if you don't speak a word all day, the average human being makes constant noise - sighing, coughing, fidgeting, stretching, rummaging in drawers for a pen. With all of these sounds conspicuously audible to every member of the company, a curious and shared immobility came over the department that was only relieved when the clock hit 6pm and we could leave our corporate gestation pen.
The unspoken rules of our office sounded like a quote from the popular Universal Studios movie Despicable Me:
"Rule number three: You will not cry, or whine, or laugh, or giggle, or sneeze, or burp, or fart. No annoying sounds. All right?"
Although the intentions of our boss were good by moving us to the open plan office - saving money on office space while increasing team communication - the end result was not so good: stressed-out, self-conscious employees, internal bickering over petty issues like gum chewing and headphone volume levels, a higher level of absenteeism, and increased staff turnover.
The Open Plan Office - a Curse or a Blessing?
The open office plan was conceived in the 1960's, based on a new concept freshly imported from Germany called the Bürolandschaft, or office landscape. The bold new idea was to remove all forms of physical and mental barriers created by closable office doors and by the walls of the cubical, to create a multi-hierarchical work Savannah: an open, sprawling floor plan, with the dreaded cubicles broken down and packed away and replaced with groupings of desks where employees could sit close together and collaborate.
Fast forward fifty years, and the popularity of open plan offices is soaring. By that, we mean with managers and company owners. Not necessarily with their workers.
The reasons for dissatisfaction with an open plan office layout are many, but one thing is universally loathed by workers: the lack of privacy. Although some are bothered by the lack of visual privacy - feeling prying eyes on their monitor, judging their work speed or web browsing habits, for most, it's the audio privacy that's the main problem. Sitting in close proximity to others for long periods of time, day in, day out, creates a feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia, a soul-deep weariness of having your every sniff, scratch and snack overheard and judged.
Most people in such a situation come to the unspoken group agreement to maintain personal radio silence, to keep chit-chat and banter to a minimum, to email rather than ask out loud, to don headphones as a replacement for the cubical walls and 'Do Not Disturb's signs of a bygone age.
Ironically, the office environment meant to foster internal communication and collaboration has created the opposite effect: if every person in the room has no option but to listen to everything everyone has to say, nobody wants to talk, for fear of disturbing the whole office.
When Silence is Not Golden
A recent review published in the Journal of Health Management uncovered the fact that 90% of studies on open-plan offices linked their usage to stress-related health issues such as high blood pressure, a condition triggered when a person feels a perceived inability to control their environment. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers more likely than their cubical-dwelling counterparts to suffer from stress, anxiety and frequent illness, and to become distracted and on-edge at work.
In an interesting study known as the Coding War Games, a series of coding competitions to complete in minimal time and with minimal defects, Microsoft consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister analysed the work of over 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. The results were intriguing. They discovered an enormous performance gap between organizations, even though employees had similar ages, backgrounds and years of experience.
The top distinguishing factors between top performers and those at the bottom of the productivity charts were: 1) personal privacy at work, 2) amount of allotted workspace, and 3) freedom from interruption as they worked. 62% of top performers at all companies described their workspace as comfortably private, verses only 19% of the worst performers. 76% of the worst programmers, but only 38% of the best, said that they were often interrupted needlessly.
These are significant findings. During the last few decades, the amount of space allotted to each employee shrank a total of 300 square feet per worker, from 500 square feet in the 1970's, to 200 square feet in 2015. According to the International Management Facility Association, 70% of all American employees now work in open-plan offices.
If their findings are correct, that's a lot of stressed people.
Images of "Division of Classification and Cataloging Office" by National Archives, US & "Work in Louisiana" by Manny Broussardis are licensed under CC by 2.0.
Based on his Coding Wars data, DeMarco advocates giving employees physical space and privacy as their #1 perk, over and above increasing pay levels or giving bonuses. Workers should also have personal accountability and the freedom to modify their environment. He encourages business owners to give the 'brainworkers' of their operation private, customizable spaces filled with natural light and allow them to work uninterrupted.
The successful manager's function, he writes, is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.
He assembled a theory: for a company to be successful, managers should help programmers, designers, writers and other brainworkers to reach a state called "flow" - a meditative condition where you can start work, look up, and notice that three hours have passed. Reaching good 'flow' takes time - fifteen to twenty minutes on average. In today's typical noisy, distraction-filled, Dilbertesque office very rarely allows workers to work uninterrupted for that length of time.
"When the office environment is frustrating enough, people look for a place to hide out," says DeMarco in his fascinating book "Productive People and Teams," written while he was part of Sun's CIM Technology Group. "They book conference rooms or wander off for coffee and just don't come back. Saving money on space may be costing you a fortune."
The Privacy Vs Productivity Equation
In my previous job I sat five feet from my team, yet personal communication was limited to impersonal "Good mornings" and "Goodnights." Work conversations were carried out at snail's pace via email or IM. Personal one-on-one conversations were only possible by leaving the room and finding a private bolthole to sit and chat in, fueling paranoia when several people left the room at once to chat.
My worst fear in that open-plan office was an important client ringing my landline phone, because then I felt like my every word was being listened to and judged by every person in the company, including the boss.
Recently, researchers from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University produced a study on the impact of office design on workers’ productivity. Researchers CK Mak and YP Lui surveyed 259 office workers about the pros and cons of their work environment; they found that sound levels and temperature mattered the most. The #1 biggest irritant (as voted by almost 90% of respondents) was being forced to overhear other people's conversations.
The worst distraction in all types of offices was found to be phone conversations; unable to shut out the sound of the one sided conversation, workers's brains were dragged away from their work as they unconsciously tried to figure out what was being said by the other party on the phone. In a busy office or coffee shop, phone conversations are easier to tune out as they blend together with the background noise. In a silent office, a single phone call could potentially disrupt every worker in the room.
Fast Fixes For a Too-Quiet Office
So what can you do to combat 'Pin Drop Syndrome?' The first thing you can do is to bring up the subject with your manager or your team. You may find that some people are totally comfortable with the silence, one or two may love it, while others are extremely bothered by it. Every office containing more than one person is in a constant state of compromise - for example, some people may find it too hot, others too cold, and every variable in between. The same holds true with noise levels.
Before making any changes, make sure that the majority of employees share your opinion that the office is too quiet, and that they want to do something about it. If a consensus is reached that increasing the ambient noise level would be of benefit to your company, you can try one of the following options:
1. Install a Fan
White noise is the sound made by a fan that creates a consistent noise across every frequency audible to a human. If white noise was music, imagine that one musician plays and holds middle C, which is around 261.6 hertz. Then every member of the orchestra softly plays a slightly higher or lower note. That's white noise.
Soft and steady sounds like the whir of a fan or space heater can be very comforting and can help mask the hundred and one tiny noises made by a roomful of workers going about their daily routines.
2. Use a Noise Generator
If installing a fan in your office isn't an option, you can stream a recording of white noise or natural soundscapes over a speaker from an online Noise Generator. These websites have exploded in popularity in recent years, and the sound quality of the recordings is a huge improvement over the repetitive, low quality sound loops of the past. If you've ever purchased an alarm clock with different nature sounds to help you or your baby drift off to sleep, online Noise Generators work on the same principal, allowing you to stream every imaginable background sound, from rain on a rooftop to a burbling stream with birdsong, windchimes, coffee shop murmur or even the sound of a cat purring.
Here's a great article that gives a brief rundown of some of the most popular online Noise Generators. My personal favorite (based on years of use) is myNoise.net, a site created by sound engineer Stephane Pigeon, which is filled with dozens of high-quality, customizable nature recordings, relaxing soundscapes and atmospheric effects. (Tip: open each of your favorite samples in a separate tab to create your own personal layered soundscape.)
3. Use a TV Set
Used judiciously, a television set or radio turned down low can be a good tool to break an icy office silence and improve concentration. Ideally, you should choose a channel which won't have constantly changing sound levels or anything with loud applause or a laughter track. Good choices include shows which have a consistent low murmur of sound, for instance, quieter sports like snooker, cricket or chess matches. Cooking and gardening programs also make for a relaxing background sound.
Make sure you monitor your team while you test out the system. If a program proves too distracting or if you find your employees frequently watching the action rather than doing their work, a different channel or a different TV placement might be in order.
4. Install a Fish Tank or Indoor Waterfall
Anyone who has soothed their jangled nerves watching the obligatory fish-tank in their dentist's office will attest to the powerful calming action of fish-watching. Colorful, elegant Betta fish are a good choice for a small office, as they can live in a relatively small tank.
You don't need to replicate the Great Barrier Reef in your office to reap the productivity-enhancing benefits of having a fish tank. The most important part of the fish-tank set-up is the pump; most systems have an inbuilt water filter pump, which produces a soft, calming drone. Bubble stones can be added to replicate the frothing sound of rainfall, which attach to the pump via a small clear tube.
Indoor Desk Waterfalls are available at every office supplies store, as well as online gadgetry retailers such as Brookestone. These produce a soothing white-noise babble, without the need for office staff to remember to feed the fish every day.
5. Play Music
This is the least popular option, mainly because everyone has different musical tastes. While you may feel relaxed and invigorated listening to every Van Halen album back to back, your Financial Controller may want to throttle the life out of everyone in the room by the start of Track 3. If you are an office of classical music lovers or Metalheads, then you won't have a problem. If not, keep the volume low and allow a different person each day to control the music choice. Or use a random music station like Pandora or Spotify to mix things up and keep the music random.
Music with lyrics has found to be the most distracting, so try playing some soft jazz or light classical music. This will sooth and relax your workers, while masking the sound of the guy in the corner with allergies, who sniffs loudly and enthusiastically every 10.5 seconds for 8 hours a day.
If your office doesn't have a PA system, try bringing in an iPod and a portable iPod speaker. Make sure you use a good quality speaker, as there's nothing worse than listening to music blare on a tinny set of speakers that make Barry White sound like Mickey Mouse.
6. Open a Door or Window
If you have a pleasant street outside your office and your office windows aren't painted shut, this is the fastest and easiest fix to a dead-quiet office. Opening your office windows will let ambient sounds in, like birdsong, the breeze rustling the trees or passers-by enjoying a cup of coffee. Not recommended in areas where extremes in temperature, pollution or heavy traffic are a problem.
If your company votes against your suggestions to increase the sound levels in your office, you still have an option to use headphones (if allowed) to liven up your own personal airspace. You can use these to play your favorite music, stream white noise or natural sounds from an online Noise Generator, or tune into your favorite non-distracting podcast.
Step 1. Purchase Comfortable Headphones
Plastic earbuds can be uncomfortable to wear all day long, so the first step is to get yourself a decent pair of over-the-ear headphones. Make sure they are lightweight and have soft, cushioned ear cups so you can wear them all day long without getting sore ears.
If you're an audiophile, you can't do any better than Sennheiser HD 600 Open Dynamic headphones. If you're on a budget, my personal recommendation would be to get a pair of Sony MDR-V6 Studio headphones. These are lightweight and soft enough to wear for extended periods, but have 40mm drivers and an impressive frequency response 5 Hz - 30 kHz for powerful, detailed sound.
Step 2. Try Starting Light Conversations in Your Office
If nobody is talking in your office, make an effort to start low-key conversations with your co-workers. If your normal office vocabulary is limited to greetings and goodbyes, pick a team member each day and make a point to have a short, pleasant conversation with them at an appropriate time - ideally not when they are immersed in work. Be sure to keep your chat upbeat and cheerful and on a non-personal subject. Giving praise is a good start, so you might say, "Hey John, I really enjoyed your presentation yesterday. Where did you get such a great idea from?"
The idea is to get the ball rolling on office conversations. Once you have started talking and break the silence, you might find that others join in.
Step 3. Bring in a Personal Fan or Space Heater
If your office regulations allow for you to bring in your own fan or space heater, do so. Use conservatively for the first week or two to ease your co-workers into the sound. The gentle hum created will mask the silence and blend away annoying sounds, and you'll enjoy additional benefits of being better able to control the temperature at your workstation. Be sure to use a modern model which automatically shuts off if tipped over or if the unit overheats, to avoid causing a fire hazard.
Some companies dislike the usage of individual heaters, as they can fool the office thermostat into thinking it is warmer in the room than it really is, causing the system to respond by blasting icy air down on everyone else. Find out how your office AC system works and get permission from the building manager before splashing out the money on your own heater.
The Future of the Quiet Office
Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking", presents a case that visual and audial privacy makes people more productive and creative, while constant team collaboration leads to what she calls 'group-think.' This is a term she coined to describe the assumption by managers that new ideas and innovation can only come from open group debate, when in fact, the opposite may be the case.
“Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in,” Cain wrote in the New York Times.
Take the case of one of the greatest innovators in recent history, Mr. Steve Wozniak, a kindly, introverted engineering wizard who worked alone in solitude on his singular passion, the personal computer. Before Mr. Wozniak started Apple, he worked at Hewlett-Packard, and loved his job because of a tradition started by HP to make it easier to draw engineers out of their shell so they could interact with their co-workers and colleges. Twice a day, HP's management would bring in doughnuts and coffee, so people could take a break from work, socialize and swap ideas. In this laid-back oasis of talk, low-key interactions were possible and people didn't feel guilty about disturbing others, as it was a group activity shared by the whole office.
If companies are smart, they’ll realize that many employees may not be comfortable working continuously cheek-to-jowl with their colleges, and take that into account when setting up their work spaces, says Cathy Sexton, a St. Louis, Mo., Productivity Strategist.
At the end of the day, shared work spaces and open plan office setups aren’t going away, so workers need to learn new strategies to cope with them. Says Sexton: “If everyone recognizes what everyone else needs, (the open office environment) becomes more acceptable.”
Natasha Rhodes is a careers expert and writer for CareerBliss, an online career community dedicated to helping people find happiness in the workplace. Check out CareerBliss for millions of job listings, company reviews, and salary information.