Noise pollution and choosing civility

Between May 27 and June 10 (today) I've been in various cities: New York, Oxford, Brussels, Paris, Los Angeles, and today Chicago. I've been in Union Station (Washington DC), Penn Station (NY), Newark Airport, London Airport, Brussels Airport, a coach to Paris, the Dover-Calais ferry, Eurostar, Gare du Nord, St Pancras Station, and Oxford Station, LA Airport, Chicago Airport. I've been in several different hotel lobbies and public areas and countless cafes and restaurants.

I'm not writing this list to illustrate my current insane nomadic life but to ask a question. Why in all these places I am forced to listen to one or all of piped music, television broadcasts, and public service announcements? This noise is competing with people talking to each other (conversational pitch), on their cell phones (extra loud 'phone voices'), EMS and police sirens, traffic noise, additional noise from repair or construction work sites, and street buskers.

I have a particular fury with piped music which seems to be everywhere except the quiet coach of the Amtrak, the Eurostar, and an aircraft once it has taken off. The effect of having to shout my coffee order to a barista because she cannot hear above the music has now led me to write my regular order on a card and hand it to my server.

So it was serendipity that during this particularly noisy week or so in my life I was alert to several items about noise. Questions about noise are one of the most frequently asked by people who are going to move from private office space to shared open space. The article someone sent me from the NY Times From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz makes the point that

"The walls have come tumbling down in offices everywhere, but the cubicle dwellers keep putting up new ones. They barricade themselves behind file cabinets. They fortify their partitions with towers of books and papers. Or they follow an "evolving law of technology etiquette," as articulated by Raj Udeshi at the open office he shares with fellow software entrepreneurs in downtown Manhattan. "Headphones are the new wall," he said, pointing to the covered ears of his neighbors. "

I sent the article to a former co-worker who used headphones. Here's his approach to their use:

I use the headphones mostly early in the day – it's my most productive time of the day, and having music in the background allows me to stay focused on what I am working on. Type of music depends on the day – more hard driving if I am tired, more laid back if I just want background noise. I don't notice an issue with lyrics – but I tend to gloss over those even when listening normally. I can't use noise cancelling – JUST white noise, I find, is more distracting than a mix.

As the day goes on, it typically gets more collaborative – meetings, impromptu discussions, etc, so I'll typically take the earphones out. But then if I need to jump back into a heads down mode, I can pop them back in. I am lucky in that I think I can concentrate in almost all types of environments

The 181 people who commented on the NY Times article almost without exception comment on, or imply, the loss of concentration and productivity experienced by noise pollution. The question is whether headphones are a good enough solution to enable heads down work as my colleague feels they are, or whether working in a location away from noise is a better solution – but where? As I've said, I haven't been in any public space that doesn't have loud levels of ambient noise.

A piece of noise research I came across during the week appeared in Science Daily helps on this. The researchers found that:

"a moderate-level of ambient noise (about 70 decibels, equivalent to a passenger car traveling on a highway) enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the likelihood of consumers purchasing innovative products. Similarly, the researchers also studied how a high level of noise (85 decibels, equivalent to traffic noise on a major road) hurts creativity by reducing information processing."

This is useful information if you happen to have a decibel counter on you because the researchers also note that

"Our findings imply that instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking outside of one's comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment like a cafe may actually trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas. [But only if the decibel level is about 70]."

I think this is may be material to the design of workspaces and collaborative spaces. Co-workers who talk loudly, or ambient noise that is above 70 decibels interferes with productivity and creativity. A very useful GSA booklet Sound Matters, explores these concepts further and explodes some myths around noise pollution. The authors make the point that:

as organizations transition to greater density and less private enclosure for economic and organizational reasons, acoustic performance will need to transition from a "side issue" to a "core issue."

Individuals have very different tolerances for and attitudes to noise. Personally I never voluntarily listen to music of any description, I don't have a television, and I rarely switch on my radio. I do have an i-pod which I listen to podcasts on. So imagine my delight this week when I found that the latest in the 'On Being' series that I listen to was an interview with 'acoustic ecologist' Gordon Hempton. He says that

Silence is an endangered species. He defines real quiet as presence -— not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. The Earth, as he knows it, is a "solar-powered jukebox." Quiet is a "think tank of the soul."

Following this learning about acoustic ecology I listened to Dan Pink's podcast Office Hours Tom Peters – author of "In Search of Excellence" was the guest for the hour. He talked at some length about a book – now on my Amazon wish list – called Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni.

This seemed connected to my musings on noise pollution (piped music), acoustics, headphone use and the general link between office design, acoustics and productivity. Encouraging people to choose civility in their deployment of noise could be helpful. Civility would mean keeping piped music at a certain decibel level in public spaces, and not having piped music when people can't move away from it but where they could opt to listen to their own choice of noise through personal headphones, e.g. in a coach from Oxford to Paris, or in an open space office.

Choosing civility seems relevant to office life. I was a little surprised in an office (open plan) I was in during my week's travels to have to listen to an intense and angry call by one of the employees. My inclination would have been to make the call in a private phone room – but that could be an organizational design issue. I don't know whether the caller needed to be looking at his (desktop) computer as he talked, and whether there were any private phone rooms available. To have private phone conversations means mobile devices on which to view information you are talking about and designated rooms for having the conversations in.

Similarly another office I went to during the same week a person was sitting at her desk participating in a conference call via her laptop computer. She did not have headphones so people in her immediate vicinity (including me) by default listened in to the conference call and her participation in it. I asked her why she didn't use headphones and she said they weren't provided by the company. I asked her why she didn't buy her own and she tartly responded with 'Why should I?'

Perhaps choosing civility particularly in relation to noise is a necessary organizational capability that needs to be developed to make for effective and productive office and public environments. Your comments on this would be welcome.

Meanwhile an interesting read – and one that was also recommended this week to me is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I dipped into it while I was in Chicago Public Library looking at the design of the space (no music playing there).