Why a Quiet Office Is Bad News

Here's why the demand by some companies for office silence is counter-productive.

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Andrew G. Rosen
Everyone requires a different set of circumstances to concentrate. And every job calls for a different level of communication. But why is it that the only sound emanating from many of today’s offices is the sleepy hum of electronic equipment?

The demand by some companies for office silence is counter-productive, even Dickensian in its approach to basic human psychology. Silence can be deafening. A noisy office has its problems, too. But any boss who encourages a library-like atmosphere isn’t helping the employees or the company.

A quiet office is bad because:

1. Quiet effectively kills open communication. If you’re talking to a colleague or have an issue you need to discuss with someone, quiet will enable the world to hear your conversation. Being reduced to whispering is childish and stepping behind closed doors creates a climate of secrecy and suspicion, even fueling paranoia.

[See 10 Tips for Negotiating a Raise.]

2. A silent office makes people self-conscious.

Knowing you have an unintended audience can change the way you communicate. It’s sort of like reality TV stars—how can they really be themselves when there’s a camera in their face? The people who are talking are influenced, and the audience, many of whom are trying to do their jobs, are distracted because any noise—even a simple chat—slices through the silence.

3. We email people six feet away. Since you can’t speak freely if everyone can hear, many workers opt to send emails to people (some sitting within speaking distance!) rather than have face-to-face time. Workers are hyper-conscious about disturbing other people and might not want to encourage eavesdropping.

4. You can’t listen to music. Your Rise Against might crash against your neighbor's Yo Yo Ma. If you do listen to tunes, it’ll have to be at a ridiculously low volume. Some folks, such as myself, actually concentrate better with music. The louder the better! There's a reason why elevator music exists, why your doctor thinks listening to Celine Dion will get you in the mood for a colonoscopy. Music can be a healthy distraction that helps you focus on the task at hand.

[See Improve Your Listening Skills to Win the Job.]

5. It kills creativity. A quiet work environment fosters a lack of spontaneity, creating somber and depressing working conditions. How can people exchange ideas, knowledge share, or brainstorm the next big thing if talking is the exception instead of the rule? They can’t, and the meaningful exchange of ideas and mutual problem-solving goes down the drain.

6. There is no team. Solitude is best friends with isolation. A quiet office hurts the group dynamic and defeats any sense of cohesiveness and team-building. Quiet limits the essential feedback that bosses so loudly claim they want.

Quiet does have an important role in life, but the office is not a library. Next time you laugh at a joke or have to make a phone call, don’t enjoy the silence, enjoy breaking it.

Andrew G. Rosen is the founder and editor of Jobacle.com, a career advice blog. He is also the author of How to Quit Your Job and an established freelance blogger who is available for hire. Follow him on Twitter (@jobacle) or connect on LinkedIn.