In 2012, Jason Fried at Basecamp wrote a short post that rocked the world of office culture. He proudly proclaimed the secret to a nice, quiet, productive work environment—following library rules in the office. For a blog post of only 100 words, it garnered a surprising amount of comment. In Jason’s view, this approach works very well. Employees are expected to keep quiet or whisper, to avoid interrupting, and to take louder conversations to a different area.
Not surprisingly, what seems like common sense provoked a firestorm of argument. The complaints were fairly predictable:
- Instituting library rules infantilizes workers
- Without the buzz of conversation, creative collaboration can’t happen
- There’s something very wrong in a workplace where everyone is forced to be silent
- Silence is more distracting than noise
- It would be boring to work in a quiet office
It’s Not as Bad as It Sounds
These comments demonstrate some misconceptions about the realities of properly-implemented library rules in the office. For example, they are really guidelines and not “rules” when you are working with adults. Obviously, you don’t have a supervisor going around “shushing” people. The point is to cultivate an environment where people understand the impact their noise has on their coworkers. No one is asked to be silent, just dial down the overall noise level for a quieter atmosphere.
Here are a few ways to transition to a more manageable noise level:
- Provide zones like the kitchen or break area (away from the concentrated work zones) where people are free to socialize at whatever volume they like.
- Set up part of the office with lounge-style furnishings for workers who use mobile devices and chat a lot. Those that prefer a heads-down workspace could have cubicles with high walls to shut out noise.
- Ensure there are private meeting rooms for teams that need to brainstorm. These spaces should be readily available for impromptu brainstorming. Coworkers should be encouraged to politely request that loud conversations be moved to one of these rooms.
- Let employees know that conference calls and other extended phone conversations should take place in phone booths or other enclosed areas to keep the shared workspace quieter and protect privacy.
- Post signs asking employees to remember to set their cell phones to vibrate at the start of the workday.
- Ensure flooring, ceilings, walls, and desk dividers or cubicle wall panels are selected in materials that reduce noise, making it easier to keep the workplace quiet.
A more polite and respectful workplace doesn’t have to crush creativity. In fact, when everyone has more mental space to think because they aren’t fighting the noise, you’ll find that employees are less stressed and more productive.