May 30, 2012
Drowning out the new office buzz
I read recently that the new buzzword in office design is "sound masking" -- the practice of making up for the poor acoustics and increasing "speech privacy" in new open-office floor plans.
As office walls come down and more and more employees are moved into common spaces, the problem of noise has grown. Personal headphones have become ubiquitous. Workers are building their own walls with office furniture and book towers. I actually know a woman who couldn't stand the exposed feeling she had after being moved from an office into an open, newsroom-style space so she created a pseudo "cubicle" with potted ferns.
The idea of increasing productivity, cooperation and creativity by throwing workers together is actually backfiring for some employees, it turns out.
It appears we cannot think well amid the din of others. All of a sudden, all it takes is one person exclaiming into the phone ("Hi honey! Did you get the tires balanced? And can you pick up my prescription? What? For my thyroid!") to annoy, and decelerate, a whole payroll.
The sense of being exposed can make some workers so self-conscious, especially introverts, that they function less well than if they were in an office or a more traditional cubicle space.
Apparently, things are being done about this problem, including experiments in "pink noise," soundproofing materials and special semi-private meeting areas designed for workers to host collaborative conversations without disrupting their peers.
Not every office is going to get a redo. In the meantime, the easiest solution seems to be to plug in and tune out. With email and the associated decline of phone use for business tasks, it's possible for many workers to go much of the day physically isolated from those sitting just feet from them.
But if everyone is plugging in their ear buds to block each other out, what about a sense of workplace community -- one of the supposed benefits of those open floor plans?
Well, it turns out that just because we can't stand hearing them, it doesn't mean we're not communicating with our co-workers. Workers are using employee chat groups and social media as a virtual water cooler, somehow preserving a sense of connectedness even as many hesitate to break the silence in real life.
If they want employees to avoid a pervasive sense of loneliness paired with the frustration of zero privacy, companies should encourage face-to-face contact with innovative meeting areas, as well as create virtual connection spaces.
For their part, employees can maximize the benefits of open floor plans and decrease distractions by keeping these tips in mind:
• Create a workspace that holds your attention. Using natural or full-spectrum lighting can encourage you to keep your focus on your desk, effectively highlighting your space and dimming the communal space around you. Employ visual aids such as an idea board so your eyes have a productive place to go when they get bored of your screen.
• Respect others' need for quiet. In an open plan, no matter how frustrating things get, reactionary responses like shouting won't fly. Develop a strategy for dealing with stress, such as meditative breathing or going for a walk outside.
• Avoid eavesdropping on, snickering at or commenting on your co-workers' conversations. Conversely, be careful with your own -- people are listening, so consider everything you say to be public.
• Get away. At least once a day, preferably more, get up and change the scenery by going outside, having your lunch or a snack (this also helps you avoid stinking up the room with your microwaved tuna or steaming burrito, another form of disrespect) or otherwise moving around.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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