Noise and lack of privacy are serious problems in open-plan offices, but the acoustical performance of these spaces is by no means doomed. With some conscientious behaviour and good design, they can be productive, comfortable, and even reasonably private.
Here's a list of the top 10 things you can do to help:
1. Use a reasonable voice level.
Don't raise your voice, either during in-person conversations or on the telephone. Depending on your natural voice level, you may need to pay more or less attention to this recommendation.
2. Don't hold meetings in your workspace.
If you've got time to schedule the meeting, plan to hold it in an appropriate setting.
3. If an impromptu conversation looks as if it's going to take time, find a more isolated location.
Gotten onto a fascinating topic or into a heated debate? Move it out of your workspace and into a more appropriate location. Though "collaboration" is today's buzzword, the reality is that most people still spend the majority of their time on individual tasks that require concentration. Overhearing what you're saying will disrupt their work, not augment it.
4. Don't talk or yell past your immediate neighbour.
You have to raise your voice to talk to someone two to three workspaces away and you know your neighbours aren't going to appreciate it. Get up and go over to the person's desk or store those calories and phone or communicate electronically.
5. Don't use speaker phones.
Not only will you raise your voice level, but those around you will hear the other side of the conversation as well. If you need to use your hands while on the phone, ask your manager for a hands-free headset.
6. Manage ringers and notifications.
This tip applies to your desktop and mobile phones, tablet and computer. Turn down ringer volumes, limit the number of rings, put your mobile on vibrate, don't listen to voice-mail on speaker phone, and turn those "you've got mail" notifications down or off.
7. Look before you interrupt.
If someone's visibly occupied and your question can wait, return later or send a message so they can reply at a better time.
8. Don't create unnecessary noise.
Pencil tapping, finger rapping, singing, humming and playing music over speakers won't win over those around you, so try to break those habits. Also request that squeaky chairs, drawers, doors and other items in your area be fixed.
9.Respect others' concerns.
If someone approaches you with a noise complaint, odds are they aren't doing it maliciously, but because the noise is genuinely bothering them. Take a moment to discuss whether you can reasonably reduce it. If you can't, then perhaps there's a shortcoming in the acoustical performance of your space that you can both bring to the attention of your manager. If you're the one making the complaint, be direct, but kind, because the person might not have realized they were causing a distraction.
10. Respect others' privacy.
Sometimes you're going to hear business or personal information not intended for your ears. Act as if you didn't hear something you shouldn't have, and don't add to the noise level by repeating it.
While behaving in an acoustically sensitive fashion will go a long way, we can't curtail our activities too much or we'll restrict our own comfort and performance. Any remaining noises made by people simply doing their jobs must be addressed through design. In other words, office etiquette should be a complement to – not a substitute for – strategies such as absorbing, blocking and covering noise.
Niklas Moeller, MBA, is vice-president of Burlington, Ont.-based K.R. Moeller Associates Ltd., a global developer and manufacturer of sound masking system LogiSon Acoustic Network. He also writes a weekly blog called UnMasked – an inside look at acoustics at www.soundmaskingblog.com.