Open Plan Working – Shushers versus Talkers

Jennie Lee Building (from EAG website)  I just had my first “shushing” today in my new desk in the open plan working environment of the JLB. I was moved there because I joined a new project and other team members were there.

Don’t get me wrong. The shushing was very politely done, but nevertheless it was a bit of a surprise. I was talking through a process on my PC screen.  The person I was disturbing came over and pointed out that there were quiet rooms where we could discuss things. This is true. But, all the quiet rooms were (and still are) occupied. More importantly, the quiet rooms do not my computer in them (and its specific software) so I wouldn’t actually be able to demonstrate the application I needed to. Also, it was just a quick 10 minute chat which didn’t really warrant booking a meeting room.

This got me wondering what is and is not an acceptable level of noise. This obviously varies a great deal depending on the person. It has become clear that some people in the JLB are extremely sensitive to any noise whatsoever, whereas others (myself included) have a higher threshold.

So who should decide what is an acceptable level? In a sense, whatever happens somebody will be dictating their preferences to somebody else. If somebody cannot concentrate with any noise, then clearly noise with inhibit their ability to do their work. If somebody else needs to discuss something with a colleague, then prohibiting communication in the workplace will inhibit their ability to do their work.

A logical solution, to me, would be to ask who is disturbed by noise and offer them a quieter working space. There are some largish offices (6 or so desks) that are enclosed, have a door and do not have people routinely walking through them (which happens in the open plan spaces).  If all the noise sensitive people were co-located in the same quiet space, then perhaps it would be easier to settle on a generally acceptable noise level.

Of course if the majority of people want total workplace silence, then maybe those of us who need to talk to colleagues should move into enclosed offices 🙂

Addendum: Another thought occurred to me as I arrived home and got out my laptop. I prefer to work with a laptop, and a big screen at my desk for when I’m there. That would make it much easier to shift away to discuss things if our quiet conversations got on people’s nerves.

But on the other hand one of the reasons I was given for moving the few feet from my old desk to my new desk was so that I’d be nearer colleagues so to foster those discussions which are so valuable ….

It’s a difficult question. I hope somebody comes up with a solution.

by Gill Clough

About Gill

Having worked as a Research Fellow with the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, I have now semi-retired but retained my association with the OU as an Honorary Associate.
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