How to manage sound in shared work spaces

Managing Sound in an Open Workspace

As we learned from the popular children’s’ story “The Three bears,” we often face multiple options with one being “just right” and the others being very wrong. We see three possible noise scenarios for your coworking space and only one of them is “just right.” Here’s the Goldilocks principle applied to your coworking space, including how to manage “loud talkers” and space design suggestions to get to “just right.”

Too Quiet

You have the “library” scenario. Somehow, no one is communicating, collaborating or having any sort of serendipitious collision. Everyone is totally immersed in their own personal computer screen. This is TOO QUIET.

Just Right

Then there’s the “Gentle Buzz” state…some people are focused on their own work, but there’s a casual conversation here, a group collaborating on a project over there…and this energetic hum is “JUST RIGHT.”

Too Loud

And last, you have a few people trying desperately to concentrate and they forgot to bring headphones. You have a couple of conversations around the space but they are drowned out by the loud talkers. The “loud talkers” are on the phone a lot when they’re in the space. They love the space. They are generally your most social, engaged members. They are well-liked socially. But behind their backs, members complain and want them to get private offices. They are TOO LOUD.

The Loud Talkers Will Find You

Loud talkers will try to join your coworking space. They will show up and cause discontent among your members if you don’t have a) a way to screen them out; b) appropriate places for them to work/make phone calls and c) explicit processes and cultural norms to support these options.

Coworking space design best practices are growing by the day. The industry is maturing and we know and understand the most common challenges of designing and managing spaces and know how to solve them. But maybe you opened your space a couple of years ago and you didn’t get everything right (we can relate). If there’s nowhere for your loud talkers to go without censure, try to screen for them and send them elsewhere. You are the curator of your space and if you have not designed for them, they won’t be happy, your other members will be frustrated and you will be stressed.

Noise Levels and Productivity

You are responsible for your members’ ability to do their best work.

The topic of noise in open-office plans has been a hot topic in the popular media. Julian Treasure, Chairman of the Sound Agency, says: “We have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations, so if you’re listening to one conservation particularly you’re only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write.” He claims that office workers are 66% less productive in an open-plan office than when left on their own.

Justin Stout, Cambridge Sound Management’s acoustical expert, says noise in general isn’t to blame when it comes to lost productivity. “When we talk about distractions what we’re primarily concerned with is intelligibility,” says Stout. Conversations and music lyrics are distracting when you can understand them. Background noise that provides a sense of energy but no distinct noises, as well as classical music, can be productive noise. Stout agrees with our Goldilocks principle – that you can, indeed have too little noise. He points out that in a very quiet environment, you can hear every little noise, which can also be very distracting.

Three considerations for managing sound in shared spaces:

  1. Include enough phone rooms.

They are not revenue-generating space but they will be a key driver to member happiness/comfort/productivity. If your members don’t have the environments they need to conduct their work, they won’t stay, no matter how strong the community. When in a phone room, a member should not feel punished for having to make a private phone call, but they should also not feel as though they have a free private office to use endlessly. Benjamin Dyett from Grind Spaces recommends one phone room for every 1500 square feet. Grind Spaces has multiple locations in NYC and Chicago and has evolved their phone booth approach over time.

  1. Create zones throughout the space that are clearly identified and enforced.
  • The “library” zone for focused, “please don’t interrupt me” work.
  • The “phone zone” for people that need to be on the phone often but can do so in the presence of other phone users.
  • The “group work” zone for people that want to collaborate in the open rather than in a conference room.

Managed with intension, these areas can create the “just right” ambience that makes coworking spaces appealing and productive.

  1. Play Ambient Noise through speakers

Several coworking spaces, including Enerspace Coworking, stream ambient noise through high-quality speakers in certain areas os the space. See this write-up for three recommendations for ambient noise apps.

Do you have other solutions for the “noise challenge?” Please share!