Background Noise in a Team Workspace

I’ve been working on a project along with about 10 other people in a really small conference room at Microsoft in a room we’ve dubbed The Triangle Lounge. This room could comfortably fit about 5 people, but we’ve been cramming 8-10 in there every day. Why do we do it? Because we find that we are much more productive as a team if all sit in the same place.

When we all sit in the same room, we have a lot more opportunities to have spontaneous conversations about whatever kind of problem comes up. We’ve also found that having everyone in the same room has made us into a team. We’ve gotten to know each other, so we joke around, someone starts quoting some movie and the entire room finishes the quote, we can also handle the mini-crises that come up every day during development. Immediately. Without calling a meeting. Because we’re all there in the same room.

As you might expect with so many people in a small room, it can get really noisy. This noise was initially a pretty big problem to those on our team who were not used to working in an open workspace environment. They had problems concentrating on their tasks, and they would get drawn into every conversation. But over time, we all learned Project Selective Hearing.

Project Selective Hearing

When a crowd of people are all in the same room, all carrying on different conversations, it is really difficult to focus on a task. Your mind hears snippets of many conversations and tries to listen to them all. The net effect of this is that your mental energies are spent listening rather than concentrating on what you’re really trying to do.

That all changes, however, if the conversations all center around your task. As you work for longer in an environment like this, your mind learns to process what it is hearing in the background. Somehow, and I don’t know how, you begin to subconsciously listen to everything that is said without being distracted. And you always seem to hear the right word at the right time to join in the right conversation. But you also don’t hear the extra words that you don’t need to hear.

It happened on our team. We went from being constantly distracted with all the background conversations to only hearing the ones that really involved us. And once we heard them, we were able to turn around and join in. Working together in an open workspace and developing this skill of Project Specific Hearing has allowed us to work together closely without being overwhelmed.

Have your teams noticed this same effect? I’d love to hear about it.

— bab

7 thoughts to “Background Noise in a Team Workspace”

  1. Maybe if it is all the same project it could work. I just know that it is impossible to drown out the noise I’ve encountered at various client sites.

    On one project we were all in the same area in cubes (they don’t block noise and don’t offer much privacy, so I think they’re worthless) but I kind of liked the ability to have a little area of my own that I could be in. But we still had that camaraderie that you are talking about with movie quotes and, in our case, sound bites. 🙂

  2. Darrel,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your characterization of cubes. I hate them, and always try to get teams out of them for work. I’m not sure what they are supposed to provide except the illusion of privacy for workers at a cost that bean counters can stomach.

    But even the minimal amount of overhead associated with communication in cubes is enough to hinder gelling as a team. There is somethng magic about a common workarea that brings out the "team" in a team 🙂

    Another advantage of a team workarea is that the peer pressure in there can help to cut down on the non-work related conversations. They still happen, along with the movie quotes, etc, but there is still that underlying pressure to stop and get back to work. In a cube farm, all conversation is shared by everyone, and there is nowhere else to go. I wonder if your experience would be different if there was a separate work area apart from the cubes? What do you think?

    — bab

  3. Could be. I’ve had good luck working in a common area but on different projects (a couple of Microsoft team members were in the same room). I didn’t have any problems, but then I had the same disposition as the other guys. 🙂

    I’d look forward to it, as long as things were arranged well (adequate space for example, not a lot, but adequate).

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