Hush! How to Harness the Power of Silence in a Successful Business

You lose more than 66 percent of your productivity through accidental noise in the office. That corresponds to more than half your day, in which you were meant to be working, disappearing into thin air. It does not have to be that way. Small changes in the office have major impact on your productivity, sanity, and your bottom line.

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I recently learned a new word: schizophonia. Never heard of it? Well, neither had I. But let me explain: according to Julian Treasure, who works with how sounds affects us, schizophonia is a state of confusion experienced when what you hear and see does not match for a longer period of time – say, a full workday. It is an interesting concept, because about 70 percent of all office workers work in open plan offices, and many of those use earbuds with music to cancel out the noise of chattering colleagues.

This in itself, however, is not a viable solution. While shutting out sounds with music may help, we tend to play the “wrong” kind of music in the attempt to block out our peers. I am not one to judge what kind of music you or your employees should listen to, but whether it is Pavarotti or P. Diddy, it is a known fact that music with lyrics reduces productivity even further.

Too many voices in your head

Julian Treasure touches upon this in one of his highly recommendable TED talks, stating that we can only follow 1.6 conversations at the same time. When you are typing, it adds up to one conversation in your head and 0.6 of the song lyrics in your earbuds. Or, which is more often the case, the other way around. So, essentially, if you are writing and listening to music at the same time, you only hear 0.6 of your own voice. That does not sound very productive, does it?

Yet, open offices are not going away, even though they reduce productivity by 66 percent – almost two-thirds of productivity – compared to a silent environment. Listening to music through earbuds simply places a layer of noise over an already noisy environment – and you cannot get rid of your carrot-crunching, next-desk neighbor, because she is also your greatest resource in accounting.

So, what can we do about it? First of all, if you have a problem with noise in your office, you absolutely have to speak up. The noise is bad for your health, sanity, and business. Chances are, if the noise is bothering you, then you are probably not alone. Allow me to suggest a few changes to the environment, technology, and behavior in the office which, with varying degrees of difficulty and expense, may decrease noise and thus improve the working environment.

Five ways in which you can achieve silence and success

  • Ideally, the copier, the fridge, and the coffee machine should get their own rooms. Noisy machinery accounts for much of the noise in the modern office – especially because of their social setting. A water cooler or coffee machine encourages conversation. That means everyone nearby gets to overhear many conversations each day, and as we can only cope with 1.6 conversations at a time, that is a lot of disturbing noise influencing productivity. Move machines and venues for noisy, social gatherings away from the open plan.
  • What you see is what you get interrupted by. Offering natural breaks in your field of vision,  bookshelves, or room dividers, for example, can block out a bit of the noise, but more importantly, it blocks some of the visual noise: people constantly moving back and forth. This is quite effective, as you are suddenly awarded with a hint of seclusion, and this makes a huge difference to your productivity, because it limits the schizophonia caused by the visual input your brain receives.
  • As an alternative to music, noise-canceling headphones offer a filter for sound. While passive noise cancellation shuts out noise by fitting tightly to your ears, active noise cancellation offers sound waves of their own which cancel out the sounds of the surroundings, essentially offering complete silence. It is very effective indeed. Of the various different kinds of headphones, some allow you to accept calls and listen to music in addition, and some even have a busy light, making your surrounding neighbors aware of your need for solitude.
  • Then, there are your colleagues. As mentioned earlier, if the noise bothers you, it probably bothers your colleagues as well. So, maybe you can come to an agreement: no talking in the office after lunch, desk meetings can be held in another room, lengthy telephone conversations can be taken off the office floor, for example. Come to the sort of arrangement that suits your team. I promise that your productivity will increase, as well as the feeling of respect for co-workers.
  • If all else fails, you should have a place to escape to: your home, the coffee shop, or the library. Please note, however, that this is not a solution that will stand the test of time. Working off site is only for those times in which you really need to focus, and it should not be an daily necessity. If it is, you need to implement one or more of the above, or you may end up putting your health at risk.

I am going to put up my own fight against schizophonia by changing my lyrics-filled music to the natural sounds that Julian Treasure recommends – just to see if the sounds of waves or birds will speed up my own productivity.