Office noise: an investigation

Sep 05 2013

By the time August rolled around, the Reese News Lab summer staff had gotten to know each other well. We worked together, learned together and watched a lot of YouTube videos together. There were times when it got pretty loud in the Lab. The range of volume levels we saw in the Lab is not unique. Offices have a tendency to get noisy, so the question becomes: Is office noise productive?

I was curious to see what our noise levels looked like throughout the day, so I called in expert help. On July 30 Meghan Horton, the Reese News Lab programmer, and I bugged the Lab.

A day of noise

Noise in the office.

The levels of noise in the Lab fluctuated throughout the day. The sound wave image on the left is from one workday. There are obvious periods of solid noise (represented by green). Within these periods, sound levels dip occasionally, but in general they remain at a stable, loud level. The periods of quiet are much more broken up. The longest period of quiet lasts about 15 minutes.

The noise in the Lab came from a variety of sources, both productive and unproductive.

“The Lab is always so full of great energy- just so much fun all the time. But when it comes to work time, many people would say quiet is necessary,” said Azul Zapata, Reese News Lab summer staffer.

Staffers had different ways to handle the noise. Some who were looking for absolute silence headed out of the Lab to libraries and other offices while others put in headphones in an attempt to block out the background. These measures weren’t always enough, so in an effort to create a period of more solid quiet, some students suggested a “quiet hour.” During quiet hour, voices were to be kept at low levels in order to get work that required more focus than collaboration done.

“Some days it was successful, some days it happened naturally which was really great, and sometimes it was majorly unsuccessful and also people have different standards to what quiet actually is,” Zapata said.

Horton, Reese New Lab programmer, said that quiet hour generally worked well.

“Quiet hour was nice because you could have some time to focus on what you were trying to work on but at the same time if you’re whispering to your partner because you needed to talk to them, it wasn’t looked down upon,” she said. “It’s helpful to have quiet hour every once and a while, but it doesn’t work every day.”

Reese News Lab

Reese News Lab staff collaborate to share ideas (Photo: Hetali Lodaya).

In a collaborative, team-based environment like the Reese News Lab, it’s hard to have a quiet work space, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reese News Lab Executive Director John Clark is always saying, “if you’re doing it alone, you’re doing it wrong.” A lot of the time, noise in the Lab meant that staffers were working together to discuss new ideas and come up with unique solutions to problems they came across.

“Noise levels were  little bit high over the summer but a lot of times it was productive. It was students working on things and throwing out ideas,” Horton said.

So what’s the final conclusion? Is office noise productive? The answer isn’t black and white. There are certain types of work that are better done with noise and others that are better done in quiet. But the quality of work we produced this summer – at STEMwire, Capitol Hound, and NewsLing –  is a pretty good example of just how good collaboration and a bit of noise can be.


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