Be kind to thy neighbours

Best practices of open-concept etiquette include respectful behaviour, design
By Niklas Moeller
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2013

Noise and a lack of privacy can be serious problems in open-concept environments. But these spaces are by no means doomed — with conscientious behaviour and good design, they can be productive, comfortable and even reasonably private.

Developing a set of shared expectations regarding noise can also contribute to successful relationships amongst co-workers.

HR professionals can influence employees’ behaviour by posting these 10 tips:

Use a reasonable voice level. An employee should not raise her voice during in-person conversations or on the phone. She may need to be more conscious of her volume.

Don’t hold meetings in a work space. If an employee has time to schedule a meeting, he should plan to hold it in an appropriate setting.

If an impromptu conversation goes long, find an isolated location. If an employee gets into a fascinating topic or heated debate, she should move it out of her work space to a more appropriate location.

Don’t talk or yell past immediate neighbours. Any employee who raises his voice to talk to someone two to three work spaces away is not appreciated by neighbours. The person should get up and go over to the person’s desk — or communicate electronically.

Don’t use speaker phones in open areas. Not only will the employee raise her voice level, but those nearby will hear the other side of the conversation. People using their hands while on the phone should have a hands-free headset.

Manage ringers and notifications. This tip applies to desktop and mobile phones, tablets and computers.

Employees should make sure they turn down ringer volumes, limit the number of rings, put their mobile on vibrate, avoid listening to voicemail on speaker phone and turn down the volume on “You’ve got mail” notifications.

Look before interrupting. If a co-worker is visibly occupied and a question can wait, the employee should return later or send a message so the co-worker can reply at a better time.

Don’t create unnecessary noise. Pencil tapping, finger rapping, singing, humming and playing music over speakers will not win over co-workers within the vicinity — employees should break those habits. Any squeaky chairs, drawers, doors or other noisy items should also be fixed.

Respect others’ concerns. If an employee approaches a co-worker with a noise complaint, odds are he is not doing it maliciously.

The person making the complaint should be direct, but kind, because the other person might not have realized she was causing a distraction. If there is a shortcoming in the acoustical performance of the space, it should be brought to the attention of a manager.

Respect others’ privacy. Sometimes employees hear business or personal information not intended for their ears. They should act as if they did not hear it and not add to the noise level by repeating it.

ABCs of effective acoustics

The remainder of the acoustical burden is borne by design. Etiquette is a complement to — and not a substitute for — strategies such as absorbing, blocking and covering noise.

Unfortunately, organizations often wrongly or unnecessarily dispense with noise-dampening strategies in the name of sustainability, economics or aesthetics.

At the same time, the average number of square feet per work station has dropped dramatically at many organizations in recent years.

There is not only less distance between people but many more people within the same area.

Given that long-term people costs far outweigh those of facilities in most markets, it is worth questioning if this is the right course of action.

And poor acoustics should not be taken lightly. They are a major source of workplace dissatisfaction and can have a significant impact on performance.

Though “collaboration” is a buzzword, most employees still spend more than one-half of their time on individual work that requires concentration and a further 20 per cent on the phone or in conversation at their work space, according to several reports — the 2012 What We’ve Learned About Focus in the Workplace by Gensler; the 2008 Lewis & Clark State Office Building Post Occupancy Evaluation by Sue Weidemann of CP & Associates; and the 2001 Disproving Widespread Myths About Workplace Design by BOSTI Associates.

The Center for the Built Environment (CBE) also found a strong link between workplace satisfaction and speech privacy.

Many employees are disturbed by co-workers talking on phones or in surrounding areas. They are also concerned others can overhear their conversations. Often, maintaining their confidentiality is essential to an organization.

A balanced approach

Some organizations have taken noise reduction to the extreme, believing effective acoustics will only be achieved when the sound levels in their space are as low as possible. However, just as with other ergonomic factors — such as lighting, temperature and humidity — there is a comfort zone for the volume of sound.

This can be achieved by using a sound-masking system to control the “noise floor” or the level of continuous sound that characterizes the space at any given time.

If this floor is too low, speech and intermittent noises are easily heard and disruptive, even if they are relatively low in volume. The noise floor in offices is often so low that conversations are intelligible from up to 50 feet away.

Sometimes noises can be reduced or eliminated by the simplest of interventions.

Behaviour is a good place to start, but the environment itself must support both quiet work and interaction by providing sufficient acoustical control to manage reasonable noises.

Furthermore, there needs to be a balanced combination of all methods of noise control, because each one contributes to the overall result.

Niklas Moeller is vice-president of K.R. Moeller Associates in Burlington, Ont., a developer and manufacturer of sound-masking technology. For more information, visit or

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