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I work for a small group that rents a few offices from one of those companies that rents out a floor in an office building and then sublets individual rooms. Our group is part of a larger company based in another city. Some of the other renters (our group's peers, in other words) have some very bad speaker-phone habits, and I'd like to find a way to get them to change their behavior.

Several people on this floor think nothing of putting their phones on speaker (at what sounds like max volume) while leaving their doors open. Even with our doors closed, the sound is invasive. Some of them do this for hours per day.

My coworkers and I have talked gently with some of the people individually -- "hey, you probably don't realize this, but I'm three doors down and I can hear every word". We've tried telling them it bothers us, and we've also tried pointing out that their confidential business dealings aren't so confidential. (We've overheard private business discussions like financial plans, and discussions with customers, but so far nothing that has regulatory or legal impact, like health or credit-card data.) We've asked them to close their doors and try to lower the volume on the speaker. Most of them apologize, close the door for the next call they make, and then revert to their original habits. One person told me "well, you guys make noise too, you know", to which I said I was worry that our conversations were bothersome and to please let us know if it happens again.

I have sometimes simply closed their doors, though it feels a little pushy to me when I do that. I have spoken with our landlord (the company that sublets the space to us), and they had a conversation with one tenant once and things got better for a few days before regressing. I also asked the landlord (who provides furnishings and equipment) if they'd consider a different model of phone for their next purchases, one that doesn't go that loud, suggesting that the current phones might have been designed for large conference rooms instead of small offices. (I got a noncommital shrug to that.) I'm not particularly authorized to deal with the landlord -- none of us is -- so on that front we're limited to informal requests unless company higher-ups get involved. I've mentioned the problem casually to my manager (in another city) but he can't do much, and I worry that trying to escalate will come off badly. To someone sitting in an office hundreds of miles away who isn't living it, this must sound pretty petty, right?

We are going to be in this space for about another year. Several of us find headphones uncomfortable so we cannot address the problem only at our end. (We could explore noise-generation; so far people aren't enthusiastic about that.) The space is fully rented out so we cannot shuffle offices. We've done the best we can do in terms of placing people within our space (e.g. putting our conference room, rather than people's desks, closest to the noisiest neighbors). We're not in this space long-term so it's not practical to install soundproofing in the walls; also, since no tenants are in this space long-term, the landlord is not motivated to make improvements.

I'd like to address the problem at its sources, ideally while maintaining civil relations with the neighbors. So I'm looking for a diplomatic solution if possible, or a way to persuade the landlord to take firmer action.

This question is similar, but it asks for what the employee can do at the "receiving" end. I'm looking for ways to tackle the problem at its source. Also, all the "noisy people" questions I could find on the site are about coworkers, with whom there's a shared reporting relationship (if you go high enough); these are neighbors who don't work for our company, so the approaches might be different.

Update: Since posting this question, one of the other tenants complained to the landlord about our direct requests to them. The landlord told us not to talk to the other tenants, no matter how nicely, and to instead let them know when there are problems. Doing that usually fixes the immediate problems and people are getting a little better about closing their doors, but it still happens a lot and the landlord isn't addressing the broader problem (policies, different phones, better acoustic insulation, whatever). The corporate real-estate people are now aware of the problem.

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This behavior is entirely unacceptable. This is an issue for your landlord. Your landlord is in the business of selling shared office space that can productively be used. He is at present failing to do that.

"No more Mr. Nice Guy!"

I suggest you ask your site manager to speak to whomever in your company made the deal with this landlord, and get that person to lodge a formal complaint. This will let the landlord know you are serious about avoiding this drag on your productivity.

In the meantime, I suggest you intervene whenever this happens. You need to do this consistently, predictably, and without rancor. Close the door to the noisy office, after saying loudly enough for the other party on their phone call to hear, "please respect your neighbors by closing your door for speakerphone calls."

Keep doing it. These sound like the kind of guys who need to be retrained whenever they get back from lunch, so don't expect them to "get the word" and change their behavior. They need to be reminded.

And, get the heck out of that shared office space as soon as you can break your lease.

7

How petty it will seem to the far-away manager (FAM, for short) will depend on your relationship with that person, and that person's past experience with this sort of thing. It seems to me that your first line of defense here is to try to escalate through the channel, but, as you write, this depends on the attitude of the far-away boss. If you work for a large company, it's possible that the space is actually leased for you by someone who is not your far-away manager, but is, rather, some sort of facilities person. This person might even relish the opportunity to help by taking up your case.

It seems to me that a frank conversation with the FAM is in order. You can't poison your relationship by saying, 'M. X, this noise problem is a serious impediment to productivity. Of course, if there's nothing to be done, we'll manage, but I want to make sure that you understand the situation, in case there is some corporate resource available to press the landlord to enforce the conditions of the lease on the other tenants.' One hopes that the worst you can get is a sympathetic 'no'. You might get authority to treat with the landlord, and you might get real help.

Sadly, if you don't get help, you're in a position of guerrilla warfare, and that is unlikely to go well. Trying to change the behavior of people who don't work for the same company that you work for could get very bad.

I used to have a group of people working for me on the opposite coast; my biggest frustration was that they were unwilling to tell me about problems, often conserving them until they were insolvable. Who knows if your FAM is more like me or more in the mold of 'I don't want to be bothered by this distant buzzing noise?'

2

When you are asking them to keep the noise down, you should be talking to the person who is in charge. If not I suggest the following.

1. Over the course of 1-2 weeks make a note of everything you can hear that would be classed as confidential or a data protection breach (if your country has this).

Do not use exact details. Instead be vague enough that they get the context. For example:

Tues: 4:01pm Employee talking about company X and prices.

Weds: 10:45am Employee mentioning customers details which may break HIPPA/Data protection laws.

The reason for this is to show you are not detailing exact information which could be used by you.

2. Go to the person who owns the company and detail out that you have tried to ask them to be quiet. Detail all the incidents in the last two weeks you have written above.

If you have external contractors/vendors in your area you should also mention that (to show that you have no control over who may hear this information).

  • That's a good idea. We don't actually know who all the other businesses are (oops, didn't think to mention that before); do you recommend asking the landlord for that, or finding some way to ask "hey who are you guys anyway?" (and hope Google can identify an owner), or what? – Monica Cellio Aug 27 '14 at 15:12
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Use the idea of gamification to put up a whiteboard in the common area and use it to keep daily and weekly scores for guilds (businesses) on the floor. A collective challenge to focus on one egregious behavior per month. Use the scoring system +5 +3 +1 for positive behavior and -1 -3 -5 for penalizing poor behaviors. The prize is Friday Happy Hour with the guild with the lowest score picking up the tab for the guild with the highest score.

The constant reminder of the whiteboard provides social pressure to keep it quiet for the guild. Most guild members will not want to cause their guild to lose the challenge.

Start with an easy one like labeling owners to lunches in the common refrigerator. This is to workout any quirks in the rules of the game and the scoring. Then, begin work on the harder to modify behaviors using the same principle of a game. Guilds might want to look at http://www.chorewars.com/ to keep track of the challenges.

Also, use the game structure to promote new positive behaviors, like collaboration in a floor-wide brainstorming session for innovation, group problem-solving, or brown bag training on some competency that affect all guilds like business etiquette. :D

  • That's a cool idea. There currently isn't a standard way to communicate with everybody in the space (e.g. there's not an email list); how do you recommend starting a conversation about that? Talk to everybody individually, write up something and slide it under doors, or what? – Monica Cellio Aug 27 '14 at 15:13
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    This could backfire spectacularly. These peopel have no reason to particualte in your gamining. Many people would be insulted enough at the idea that they would ganme the system the other way. I saw this play out once when we had a woman who constantly complained about the profanity the men used. She kept track of how many times and what words and the guys made it a pont of honor to have a higher score the next time she went to the boss. – HLGEM Aug 27 '14 at 15:38
  • Have a joint lunch or potluck. Advertise it by posting flyers in the elevators, stairways, bathroom stall doors....Make it fun... – Dutch Driver Aug 27 '14 at 20:33
  • The shared space promotes what is known as the Tragedy of the Commons in Game Theory. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons Each actor will act in the self-interest at the expense of the long term goals of the group of people sharing the space. HLGEM points to a where it was essentially group of guys vs. score keeper...who failed to recognize the competitive nature to gain status through the scores she was keeping and relating to management. Monica, contact me and I have a proven program used at NASA for a Chili Cookoff. I'd be glad to share it with you. – Dutch Driver Aug 27 '14 at 20:45
  • Sadly this answer breaks the "treat people like adults" rule. – Nathan Cooper Mar 4 '15 at 14:43

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