13 December 2016

Shhhh: Fight disturbances at the office

Shhhh: Fight disturbances at the office


Open-plan offices, smartphones, impromptu meetings and e-mail correspondence. Disturbances and noise that makes the work day hectic and inefficient, and poses the greatest threat to knowledge workers most important resource: their concentration and the good decisions it entails.

“If we look at knowledge workers, it is more the brain than the body we must take into account when we relate to appropriate working conditions. In this context, disturbances are important to avoid because they destroy the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate,” says Louise Harder.

She studies ‘New ways of working’ and has developed a number of tools that take up the battle against disturbances in the workplace

Twist the office behaviour

One of Louise Harder’s obsessions is the open-plan office landscape. It is not so much the premises that she sees a potential for improvement in, but the way colleagues interact. There simply lacks a code of behaviour for how as an individual you show that right now you do not want to be disturbed.

“It’s not about building a glass mausoleum around each employee, but to agree some ground rules that everybody in the workplace respect. Ground rules for how each employee signals to their colleagues to what extent they are available. As of right now I do not want to be disturbed, right now I’m not actually present, though I am physically sitting in my seat,” says Louise Harder.

She admits it can be uncomfortable for colleagues to enforce rules against each other. Actually, people manoeuvre to avoid that kind of confrontation. A survey of 11,200 office workers has shown that 20% put on headphones just to signal to their environment that they do not want to be disturbed. Therefore, it is important that the cultural change is dictated on a management level. However, there are also ways in which a workplace can introduce a regulatory framework in an unpretentious way.

“At one point I advised a large Danish company, where we bought a load of Twist chocolates because we had to ‘twist’ behaviour. If someone was talking too loudly in the open-plan office, where we had agreed you should not o that any longer, we could then give each other a ‘twist’ in the right direction,” she explains. 

Forget about e-mail

Another point that Louise Harder puts forward is the importance of the right channel of communication between colleagues. Forget about the lengthy e-mail correspondence, when in reality there are far more appropriate platforms. It can be something as simple as a telephone conversation, which in 20 minutes achieves more than 60 e-mail messages could, or a chat function.

“We shouldn’t just fire off one e-mail after another. You have to think about whether a conversation is suitable for e-mail or whether it is really best with a meeting or a chat where multiple participants can be involved. First and foremost it’s about articulation. We have to realise that there are indeed more effective methods than e-mail. You have to agree at the workplace that there are other methods that we can use,” says Louise Harder.

This is what you do as a manager:

  • Agree some ground rules for when you can be disturbed in open offices
  • Consider when e-mail correspondence can better be replaced with a meeting or a chat

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