On the few occasions that office spaces consider the sound in their space, the suggestion is almost always: keep it quiet. We’re trying to work here, right?
But is silence always the best atmosphere for a space? What if an office is so silent employees become distracted by the sound of their coworkers annoying coffee slurping, or the silence creates an atmosphere that’s so awkward that people don’t feel comfortable to interact with each other?
When designing productive, collaborative office spaces, it’s important to understand the role that sound (and especially silence) has on the people in the space and the culture that is likely to form.
If an office space is so quiet that you can hear someone sip their coffee, type on their keyboard, or drop a pencil—there’s a problem. “Silence” in a room full of living, breathing, working people, isn’t silence at all. It’s the sound of typing, phone calls, and hundreds of other potential distractions.
Way back in the day (like when the greatest threats to humans were creatures in the wilderness) reacting to sudden distractions was a survival mechanism. In the same way that hearing the snapping sound of a twig being stepped on would have driven our ancestors to run first and ask if it was a tiger later, a relatively loud sound in the office, distracts our brains from the work they were doing and instinctively moves our gaze in the direction of the sound (which is even more distracting.)
If someone walks through a dead quiet room and drops a pen, the noise comes out of nowhere and people are more likely to stop what they are doing, even if only for a second. These constant interruptions throughout the day can add up, making it very hard to be productive when every sound becomes a distraction.
Silence affects more than just how distracted people become in an office. That same silence can have an effect on the volume people end up speaking at and even if they stop speaking altogether.
Imagine you’re at a football game surrounded by thousands of cheering fans and want to talk to your friend, you have to speak (scream most likely) at a volume slightly louder than the noise around you in order to be heard. But when you’re walking in the park with a friend, you adjust your voice to be just louder than the chirping birds and rustling trees. It comes quite naturally. The “normal” speaking volume is relative to the environment.
This is the case with every surrounding we’re in. We are always adjusting the volume we speak at accordingly. The quieter it gets, the quieter we speak. What do we do when it’s completely silent though?
If we take that same “normal” speaking volume from the park and speak at that level in a silent office, it wouldn’t sound normal anymore, it would sound relatively loud. Every time someone speaks at that level, it can feel like they are interrupting the silence.
It feels weird for employees to talk at a “normal” volume when the rest of the space and people are silent. Whispering is an option, but it’s equally weird to whisper about the project spreadsheets—right? And walking out to a more public area like a common space isn’t worth it if it’s just for a short conversation.
The quieter an office becomes, the quieter the people in the office tend to remain. If they don’t feel comfortable breaking the silence, it becomes increasingly likely that silence will become the new norm and norms can be hard to change.
When people in the same room hesitate to speak, they don’t engage in the type of randomly occurring medium-talk that contributes to employees building stronger connections with each other.
As silence perpetuates more silence, eventually (because many humans can’t stand silence) people end up putting on their headphones and eliminating the opportunity for conversation altogether.
What happens when employees stop interacting? Relationships don’t form, departments don’t work as well together as they could be, and innovation happens more slowly.
The new culture of awkward silences threatens more than just daily productivity, it jeopardizes the future of a company. Who wants to work somewhere they don’t feel comfortable to talk to a friend?
Silence is often praised as the ultimate productivity tool but complete silence isn’t the best way to move forward. Silence leaves room for all sorts of distractions and can compound as we become quieter. The culture behind staying quiet leaves people with less collaboration and friendships with the people they work with. So what can be done?
There’s a lot we can do about silence. Unfortunately, you can’t stop people from making distracting noises but you can make those noises less distracting. Adding quiet music is a good place to start. Without this background noise, every distraction sounds amplified. The best way to minimize these is simple: turn up the volume.
These random distractions haven’t completely disappeared but by adding music to the space they’ve become almost unnoticeable. The music serves a similar purpose to white noise. This level of continuous sound in the background smooths out the impact that distracting noises have on our productivity.
As well as adding sound to reduce distractions, it also defeats the awkwardness of silence that can make people feel too uncomfortable to interact with each other. But where things get really interesting is when you consider how much sound to add.
Earlier we talked about how the volume in a space, determines how loud people are likely to end up speaking. What if you reverse engineered that concept? First, by deciding the desired interaction in a space and then asking what volume level encourages that outcome.
By having different levels of noise in the background, you can start to influence the type of interactions that people are comfortable having. So while adding a little sound could result in more people feeling comfortable whispering, adding more may mean people feel freer to talk and collaborate together.
The interesting idea here is that it’s possible to have more control over the type of interactions that people are comfortable having in a space by choosing the amount of sound that is added.
By knowing what each part of an office will be used for, you can determine which areas would benefit from adding sound and how much sound should be added to accomplish the desired outcomes. If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at which areas to place speakers in, what type of sounds to use and not use, and how to go about choosing the right volume for the right space, look at this post here.