Open Up

These days, I prefer a Mac to a PC, and I prefer to write in my office at home – with music if I’m inclined, with a cat if she’s inclined, and usually with a nice cup of tea.

I have fewer options at work unfortunately – there’s a kettle for tea and I have headphones. The key difference is at home, music is optional – at work, headphones are required.

For some time I’ve been struggling with the open plan office and its incumbent distractions. The number one problem is sound. No surprises there: we have a completely open layout with very low partions that provide almost zero sound barrier, and coupled with a low ambient noise this means voices carry loud and clear for long distances.

It’s very difficult to articulate why it’s a problem, when everyone around you seems to be coping. Except they’re not coping – I’ve had colleauges admit that they don’t do productive reading work in the office, and have to take reports home. That’s since been raised at my manager’s level – with the consensus that employees shouldn’t have to do that, and the company should provide an environment where quiet work is possible.

Aside from the fact that one of the worst culprits for loud conversations is one of those managers, I don’t expect anything useful to be done anyway. Asking people to shut up modifies behaviour for a few weeks – during which time the complainant is likely to be just as uncomfortable for creating a confrontational atmosphere. There is no money and no energy to redesign the office workspace.

Aside from unwelcome conversations, we have sudden loud noises like a weekly fire alarm test, and dryers in the toilets that can generate a sound pressure of 100 dBA. As Julian Treasure points out, a sudden loud noise is disruptive not only because it disrupts thought and speech, but it actually triggers hormonal release and causes stress.

The video is useful for explaining exactly why unwanted sound is disruptive. I used to listen to music to block out background noise, but I found that counterproductive (when I really have to think, such as when blogging, I prefer silence). Birdsong does indeed work better.

But now I mainly use simplynoise.comBrownian Noise even at low volume can mask speech enough to make it unintelligible, and thus much easier to tune out. Laughter and other loud voices still get through, but the impact is greatly reduced because I stop trying to process recognisable speech.1

As the issue of open plan is gaining visibility there are some designs that seek to increase the level of ambient noise through pink noise generation at workstations.

After noise the next offender is lack of privacy, and particularly the habit of others coming up to your desk to have a quick chat. Open plan is often cited as enabling teamwork, communication and creativity. The problem is creativity as part of an interacting team is not the same as individual creativity which is the prevalent mode of solitary working at a computer.

Of course, complaining about being interrupted will brand you as a misanthrope and not a team player. If you encounter this, you could throw it back – if they claim to be a team player then why not recognise other team member’s needs for privacy?

Last on the list of distractions is the computer screen itself. Being overloaded with email alerts, popups stealing focus, and a desktop or toolbar cluttered with colourful icons is distracting. But that’s all fixable. If I can shut Outlook down I will do so (not easy since it’s got my meeting alerts on it). Lync – which is always on in our intranet – can be set to do not disturb. Hide the taskbar and the desktop icons, and set the wallpaper to something non-threatening. And for writing I prefer to use markdown via Writemonkey (which can run as portable, so I don’t need admin rights) rather than MSWord.

It’s not perfect, and I’d rather not have to have a headset glued to my ears all day (though it does cut down on interruptions if everyone think’s your in a call). The choice then comes down to dealing with crass behaviour. I have to say, my patience is wearing thin.

I guess if I communicate my displeasure with a cricket bat I’ll be accused of not being a team player again. Sigh. At least I can avoid the noisy hand dryers in the toilets – there’s a perfectly good pot plant next to my desk.

[1] A case in point – speech in a foreign language doesn’t disturb me nearly as much.