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We are having some strain in the team due to the level of noise in the office.

Background: We share a single office with a team of six software developers. We generally have a good team atmosphere, and frequently collaborate, discuss problems and pair program.

However, some team members feel that the room is often too noisy due to discussions between team members. At the same time, most of this discussion is important, and we do not want to suppress it, or stifle it by pushing it to "formal" meetings.

This also seems to partly boil down to different work habits: Some team members prefer a relatively quiet environment, while others thrive if it is a bit more lively.

How can we best resolve this conflict, without either the quiet teammates feeling unable to do work, or the livelier ones feeling suppressed? I am particularly interested in examples of how other teams resolve this, both social and technical solutions.

Some solutions we tried:

  • Headphones for screening out the noise: Helps, but not everyone wants to listen to music or white noise the whole time; also, can get uncomfortable after a while.
  • Leaving the room for discussions: Also helps, but a) does not work well for short discussions, and b) inconvenient, because we do not have another room nearby where we could go.
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One easy solution would be chat. Having to type to talk to a person sitting next to you might seem weird at first, but:

  • It's almost silent, the only noise being the keyboard, but that's a noise you can't do without in a room full of software developers,

  • An often overlooked benefit of using chat for work related discussions is that you have an instant log.

I'm favoring quiet work environments, and when I had similar conflicts in the past, using chat for short conversations worked beautifully, and (almost) everyone was happy. In combination with headphones for the music lovers and taking longer conversations out of the room, everyone was happy ;)

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    Chat clients keep the noise down. However, a) they don't bring it down entirely, because people do type 20 times faster when they're chatting than, say, programming, b) if one person makes another person laugh, that can be really annoying for everyone else, c) they make the conversation take considerably longer. – pdr May 18 '12 at 9:36
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    @pdr There isn't an ideal solution, and of course graveyard silence is not a reasonable goal. A combination of things, including chat, headphones, taking conversations out of the room, having the conversations at set times, etc, could help bringing the noise down and keep everyone relatively happy. The OP shares a room with 5 other people, it's a small team, so they have better chances of finding an understanding between them. Your office sounds scary, I don't think I would have survived in there for more than a week ;) – yannis May 18 '12 at 9:53
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    chat discussions are not anywhere near as effective as actual discussions. – HLGEM May 18 '12 at 13:34
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    @bizso09 Then they should discuss with the people that find face to face discussions annoying and find a common ground. – yannis May 18 '12 at 16:16
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    Chat is an effective alternative to simple communication like "Did we do X?" and "Could you look at Y later?" No one is proposing replace all discussions with chat, it's a matter of helping find a balance, just as laid out by the Asker. – Rarity May 18 '12 at 16:54
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Brutal truth (and I expect some downvotes for this): the "quieter ones" are going to have to suck it up and learn to live with it -- and be thankful they don't work in an open-plan office of 50-100 people. And they can learn, take it from one who has.

Honestly, it's good to hear the general work chatter of people doing the same work that you are. Your attention may be drawn by a few keywords to someone making a mistake that you can stop them making. And if you really need to shut yourself out then that's when headphones come into play -- music is just as much noise as chatter is, but it is relatively constant and thus less interruptive.

But, that said, the rest of the team can keep in mind a few things:

  • Short, interruptive sounds, like calling someone across the room, disrupts everyone's flow (especially those with the same name, which is a situation I've been suffering recently).
  • People moving around is disruptive even to people with headphones on. Sometimes it's necessary, often it isn't.
  • Save non-work-related chat until the whole team is out of flow. In my experience, this does happen, at least a couple of times a day, in any team.
  • There should be some kind of signal that says "I'm really focussed, do your best not to disturb me." For me, that's wearing headphones, but be imaginative.
  • Don't be one of those people who, when they hit their low ebb, decides that they need to tell a joke or talk about last night's game to anyone who's listening.
  • If two unrelated conversations break out in the same office, it often ramps up as they compete with each other.

A consistent hum of noise is not a problem, once you get used to it. And I've come to believe that it is necessary, in a successful team. But a sharp change in the level of noise gets everyone's attention. If you can quickly identify that it's not of interest to you then you can return to the flow without too much disruption (as long as it's not every minute). But if you have to answer a door, or even look up from your work, it's a very costly interruption.

In our office (remember the open-plan office of 50-100 people), we have tried everything, from quiet times (yes, it did feel like kindergarden) to chat clients to don't interrupt signs. None of it works, I'm sorry but that's the way it is.

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    Dangerously untrue; constantly loud work environments are perfectly fine for certain types of jobs but not for others. Our Programmers and Engineers have quiet, separated sections and aren't interrupted regularly, our secretaries and accountants work in louder environments. Treating all job functions like they're the same and saying "it's just business, deal with it" is a great way to steamroll productivity. – Rarity May 18 '12 at 12:28
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    While I appreciate the frank answer, I also tend to disagree. There are many studies indicating that constant interruptions, noise etc. severly disrupt productivity, at least if concentration is important. So it's not just a question of "getting used to it", it's a fundamental property of how we think. – sleske May 18 '12 at 13:26
  • What you are saying is a sad reality of many peoples working environments. Many open office layouts are created to make maximum use of available space. They are not designed for focused work. However, I don't agree with the notion that we should all just "live with it". This could result in underperformance, people quitting, unnecessary stress etc – Jya Jan 29 at 8:01

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