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Silence in the Workplace


Lately at DoneDone and our partner companies We Are Mammoth and Kin, we’ve been thinking a lot about work environments. In March, we read Peopleware as part of our #MindMatters book series. This month, we’ve started sharing our own home offices and explaining the thought that went into each of them.

This focus has made me reflect a bit on my own past workplaces. As a software developer, it seems I’ve experienced just about every type of office layout: the open bullpen, the cube farm, sharing a small room with a coworker, sharing a smaller room with three coworkers, occasionally having a private office, and now working from home. Which environments do I remember fondly, and which were not so great?

Silence and privacy are two different things

Not surprisingly, I had the best experiences in work environments where silence was readily available. What is surprising is that privacy was not really a factor in my happiness – a private workspace is not necessarily a silent one.

For example, I had my own office a few years back while working for a small nonprofit. The privacy was great, and I could work for long stretches with no interruptions. Unfortunately, the office was located in a strip mall, and the neighboring suite was occupied by a gym which offered high-tempo cardio classes. For a couple of hours each day, I’d hear the thump of techno music through the paper-thin walls. Great for aerobics, but not so great for coding.

In contrast, We Are Mammoth’s office offers much less privacy – everyone sits at a large shared desk surface with their backs to the center of the room. But it’s usually very calm and quiet, so it’s easy to stay focused.

Silence is best for concentration

While I appreciate quiet spaces, I don’t necessarily want to work in silence 100% of the time. If I’m performing less intense tasks like responding to emails or running tests, I’m likely to have some music playing in the background. It puts me in a good mood and helps me flow through my work. But if I’m working on a particularly troublesome block of code, planning a new feature, or writing a blog post, I find that I need as much silence as possible to concentrate.

The authors of Peopleware refer to a Cornell experiment on this effect. The study tasked several computer science students with performing several basic math operations. Some subjects worked in silence, while others listened to background music. While the study found that both groups performed their tasks with the same speed and accuracy, there was a secondary test being performed. Each arithmetic operation’s output actually ended up being identical to its input number. The majority of the students who recognized this pattern came from the group working in silence.

It seems that when our brains devote resources to processing music or filtering out background noise, this interferes with our creative thinking process. When we do intense creative work, we do it best in silence.

Silence as a courtesy

When I worked at a creative agency in an open bullpen, many of my coworkers preferred to listen to music while working, but without headphones. This was no problem as long as everyone was working on routine tasks (and if we all agreed with the music choice), but I now understand why that environment often made me feel exhausted. During the times when I needed to focus on a creative task, my colleagues may have been simply breezing through their own workloads. I needed silence, and they needed music.

Since an entire team will rarely be in the same work mode at once, it’s best to assume everyone wants quiet by default. After all, it’s easy to add sound to your work environment – just add headphones! But it’s impossible to apply silence to an already noisy space.

Unfortunately, most workplaces aren’t quiet. In that case, it helps to invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones and take advantage of the many ambient/white noise generators available online. While not the same as actual silence, they can help your focus tremendously. And if you can move around, try relocating whenever you need some quiet focus time. A couple of hours in an unused conference room might be all you need to power through a tough problem.

What sounds good to you?

Of course, each person is different. You may enjoy working while listening to classical music today, Top 40 tracks tomorrow, or death metal next week. Some days you might prefer white noise or the quiet murmur of a coffee shop, and some days you may need absolute silence. Mix it up and see what works best for you – but if you find yourself unable to concentrate, remember that silence can be golden.

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