The modern workspace is open, collaborative, and egalitarian. It’s also been shrinking in size. According to a 2013 CoreNet Global Survey, the average amount of office space per worker reduced from 225 square feet in 2010 to 150 square feet in 2013.
That reduction in the personal space of employees has coincided with the rise of messaging devices, from Slack to email and social media — and an overall increase in the number of times we’re being interrupted at work. Research at the University of California, Irvine, found that the average worker is interrupted or switches tasks once every three minutes and five seconds. This is having a major impact on productivity — and causing increasing levels of worker burnout and stress.
The Need for Sound Privacy
Research indicates that all this busyness and noise is taking a toll. Humans need periods of silence to focus on tasks and concentrate. A report by the University of Sydney shows that nearly 50 percent of people with a completely open office floor plan — and nearly 60 percent of people in cubicles with low walls — are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. The research also shows that people in open working spaces are 15 percent less productive, have trouble concentrating, and are twice as likely to get sick.
One leader from Microsoft has spoken out about the need for private spaces where his team can work on more focused tasks. “It was important to be able to hunker down and focus behind closed doors, but be in close proximity to each other so we could collaborate,” Pankaj Arora told the BBC. “We never see the doors as barriers to communication, just as barriers to noise.”
Science, meanwhile, is proving just how much our brains need a pause from all this incessant noise: periods of silence reduce stress hormones, help the brain to absorb information, and even help the brain develop new cells. Here are three ways you can help your employees find silent spaces at work:
Offer Silence Pods
If your office space is open and collaborative, aim to include silent spaces that people can use if they need quiet time. In addition to rooms for calls and larger meetings, make sure you also build areas where workers can head to for focused, uninterrupted work. The U.S. Workplace Survey 2016 by global design firm Gensler, found that innovative companies are five times more likely to have workplaces that prioritize both individual and group workspace. They cite noise management as a key differentiator for innovative companies.
Allow Remote Work
The 2016 Gensler report also found that people in the most innovative companies spend more time working away from the office, averaging 74 percent of an average week in the office compared to 86 percent for respondents with the lowest innovation scores. Working from home offers an opportunity for people to focus exclusively on a project.
Schedule in Silence
In smaller companies, it’s even possible to schedule in silence. The co-founder and CEO of Milanote, a tool that helps creative people organize projects, wrote a blog about the company’s “Quiet Time”, where they dedicate mornings to silent work, devoid of emails, Slack messages and conversations. In the afternoons, interruptions can flow. The CEO claims it made the company 23 percent more productive.
It’s worth noting that as you ramp up opportunities for silence spaces at work, you don’t want to overdo this. While silence is a helpful tool, an environment that is too quiet can be highly unnerving for people. Rather, aim to provide a mixture of spaces and options so that if employees need to shift into a space of concentration, they have that option. This will have a very real impact on the state of mind of your team and their ability to do great work.