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