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Quiet workplace: how important?

I'm going to curtail this rant, but this morning some sales guys were absolutely yammering in the lunch room which is 5 feet from my cube, and I nearly blew a gasket.

I remarked to our office manager, "Queen Perky" and was told that I was "Mr. Negative" and I should "turn my frown upside down".

For a while now I've been considering leaning on my boss for a quiet spot (we are down in the business area).  So :

#1 - how important is quiet when you are trying to write code? 

#2 - is anyone really that perky or is this the effects of prozac?

Oh, and just to get this out of the way:

"you insufferable petty bastard, there are people starving and this is what you complain about"

"you should be happy to have a job"

Thursday, July 22, 2004

loud workplace > no workplace.

I doubt that they'll be willing to give you an office, or move your group somewhere else to accomodate you.  If you can't get a pair of headphones and an mp3 player or handle it otherwise, then find a new job.

BTW: "you should be happy to have a job" = "We can fire you w/o missing a beat." They might be wrong about that, but it won't stop them from realizing it until after you're gone.

Greg Hurlman
Thursday, July 22, 2004

see Peopleware

there are lots of research results abour workspace organizing

Max Belugin (
Thursday, July 22, 2004

I actually do rock the headphones but at 8AM it's kinda painful.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

>If you can't get a pair of headphones and an mp3 player or handle it otherwise, then find a new job

from Peopleware:
you can only do routine work with music music. Effectiveness of creative work will be sufficiently decreased

Max Belugin (
Thursday, July 22, 2004

It is totally psychological.  While some studies show that lower noise level, even a private office improve productivity in the short term, most software was developed in neither of those environments. 

Years ago I worked for a company that sent you through 5 weeks of developer training where you did not learn to code, you learned to code in "uncomfortable" environments.  This was done as many clients were manufacturing and you worked either near assembly lines or on the raised floor.  Neither of which was quiet and the temperature varied by as much as 60 degrees during the day.  It's a focus issue. You can learn to do it.

Now should you?  Well, that's a different issue.  Most people find environmental noise easy to overcome, its the sudden transit of two people in a conversation, the vending machine Thud-thud-clank-click-ca-ching that happens at odd intervals or the guy who insists on using a speaker phone rather than a head set,  that is difficult to overcome.

If you are up to it, ask to be moved to a quieter area.  Another option is music/headphones or ear plugs.  I personally like the ear plugs, as everything becomes a droning noise which is easier to block out, but I can still hear the phone ring or talk to someone who walks up.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

"Most people find environmental noise easy to overcome, its the sudden transit of two people in a conversation, the vending machine"

This is exactly my problem - I don't have a problem with the din, but it's the sudden, unexpected stuff that drives me nuts.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

How about using a Bose QuietComfort™ Acoustic Noise Cancelling® Headset?

David Burch
Thursday, July 22, 2004

have you tried it?  does it work?

Thursday, July 22, 2004

"...most software was developed in neither of those environments..."

And most software is also crap. While I know this isn't the only reason, there's a good chance it's a contributing factor, if for no other reason than to scare away some of the more effective developers.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

I share an office with a guy who talks a lot. So much, that if you tied his mouth shut, his head would explode. If I brought in noise cancelling headphones, I would get a tap on my shoulder about every other minute. I'm sure you know the sort, he knows everything, has done everything, you are always wrong and it was worse in his day and time.

I need to learn to be ruder to him.

Quiet is important. The above mentioned book, Peopleware, mentions some studies proving it.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Yes, having quiet is very important, although it depends on what you're working on.  The amount of time it takes to solve a problem is generally proportional to its complexity and, depending on the problem, may or may not be separable (meaning that you can't just spend 5 chunks of 10 minutes on a 50 minute inseparable problem).

So if you're working on a 5 minute inseparable problem and at minute 4 there's a phone call, you've got to start back at minute 0.  Examples of such problems are deciding how a particular problem will be decomposed into independent functions or planning a strategy for actually implementing one of those functions.  Once you've got the strategy worked out, actually writing the code is probably an interruptible activity for the most part (exceptions apply of course).

Where noise really costs a business is when it interrupts high value thinking time -- and if you've got a problem that could take a day or two to really think through then you probably should do it outside of the office (if you haven't got some kind of personal space there).

I work in a place that's fairly noisy at times (although nowhere near as noisy as a manufacturing plant).  Luckily for me, the people who run the company don't mind that I take brief walks now and then to get away from the noise long enough to think through a hairy design issue.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Regarding #2, you might try this:,0,2835598.story?coll=sfla-news-florida

Tom H
Thursday, July 22, 2004

i think joel wrote a blog about office space a while back on this topic...

basically, quiet is important to programmers because we work more efficiently when we reach a high level of concentration.  said concentration can easily be broken by abrupt loud noises, forcing you to build it up again.

have you tried wearing earphones and listening to music?

you might want to remind your manager that you're fine with the current situation if she is.  but if she wants to get better efficiency from you, she better change the noise ante...

Thursday, July 22, 2004

>> from Peopleware:
>> you can only do routine work with music music. Effectiveness of creative work will be sufficiently decreased


And I just ordered an ipod, the "old" 20 GB with all the cool stuff for the same price as the "new" one :)

Oh well, the foo has never failed me before.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

I once did a small research project that tried to justify purchase of cloth-covered cubicle walls, over the legacy hard-metal cubicles we were using.  It was uphill work in the early 80's.

But that was before "Peopleware".  Really, Peopleware has some of the best justifications.

Having said that, some managers are willing to take the performance hit, instead of purchasing the best hardware for their developers, and providing the best environment to work in.  Since in theory that comes out of overhead, which can't be billed.  Your inefficiency, on the other hand, can be directly charged to the project, (as long as it's not too large).

Having said ALL that -- a quiet workplace can give you an order of magnitude performance improvement -- IF other interruptions are also kept low.  Other people's voices are the hardest thing to ignore.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

You know there are extremes either way - I have worked with the obnoxious oaf that checks his voicemail on superloud speakerphone and raises his voice in hallway conversations (in a mistaken belief that people are interested). On the other end I have worked in an environment (in a large corporation) where the floor was virtually silent, with nothing more than the padded-cube wall muted clicking of keystrokes, and the gentle motherly hum of the HVAC. The pervasive email-culture prevented voice communication either in person or by phone. Regardless of how interested in my work I was, this environment absolutely put me to sleep, and to use an overworked cliche, I found the silence deafening.

Maybe there's a medium of nature sounds or something. As a sidenote, why does every CD of nature sounds take the beautiful sounds of nature and layer some craptacular disposable soft-synth garbage on it? All I generally want is for someone to get a high quality recording of a babbling brook, oceanfront, or rainforest, I don't need the new age garbage.

Dennis Forbes
Thursday, July 22, 2004

I actually left my last job for pretty much this reason.  We had a CFO who was like a bull in a china shop.  And kindly (yes, I do mean genuinely kindly) asking her to keep the noise level down did nothing but make her offended at my audacity.  It was an "interesting" culture, and one I'm glad to be rid of.  The issue there wasn't just the noise, but also the lack of respect for others' working environment that it represented and brought into the open.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Given a choice, I'd always go for a quiet office over cubilcle-ville. Case in point: this morning I get into work and I'm having to try and shut-out 4 different conversations with morons yelling at each other across the room. It's like trying to write code on a futures trading floor.

In my last gig we had 2 people per office and it was a damn sight easier to get into the "zone" than it is in my current job.

Might have to look at getting some of those noise cancelling headphones...

Thursday, July 22, 2004

I like to hear people talking when I work, and when working at home I leave the TV news on.
I don't mind hearing the AC from the computer room, or anything monotonous like that. What I can't stand to hear is the faint rhythmical sound of rock music turned down low or spilling over someone's headphones.  Fortunately the guy next door only does this once in a while, and I moved away from the guy who won't use headphones.
I don't know why I like hearing conversations or talk shows while I work. I can tune it out completely if I have to concentrate.
It's too quiet where I work now, but I can't listen to music when I work. It has to be conversations or news or talk shows. I can't get any radio stations here -- I should try to get a talk station on a web site.

Dr. Real PC
Thursday, July 22, 2004

Over the years I have learned to block out almost all kinds of background noise. However, there is one noise that seems to penetrate even my headphones and drives me nuts: the sound of my cube-mate slurping his tea or coffee. I don't know why, but people slurping drinks drive me to the edge. I just want to scream at them "learn some manners, you pig!" And the constant swigging from water bottles in meetings is rather annoying, too.

Am I the only one?

Data Miner
Thursday, July 22, 2004

If I'm having any other difficulty concentrating (gee, I won't be getting commissions on my billable hours, and my new salary is going to be maybe 15% more than I was making in a part of the country where a year's salary can buy a house?  Thanks boss!), noise is a killer. 


Earplugs (I used to get mine at Walgreen's but they stopped carrying the brand (conical, dense foam) I like, when I'm out of the current jar I'll order from

Focus.  Practice sitting meditation in the evenings if you have to.  Get more exercise to work the internal chattering out.

And polish your resume.

I work at home now.  Things are ok.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Be careful with headphones. Make sure you buy the right sort. I'm not sure what the right sort might be, but I've found some require higher volume to block out a given level of noise. I didn't really notice this until I started getting ringing in my ears.

Wearing headphones can help a bit, though, even if you don't play music. People are less likely to bother you. If you half hear someone maybe mentioning your name, you can ignore it without any possibility of seeming rude. And sounds are generally blotted out a little bit too. Minor points all three, but I've found them to help.

(I've been meaning to investigate this phenomenon further, hoping to get to the stage of not having to wear headphones at all, but I think it will take practice. One of the people I work with is distractingly loud, and it will have to wait until he's away for a week or two.)

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Oh, and if you want nature sounds without the synths, you might be able to come up with something using this:

It was my intention to use this to generate a nature soundscape (wind, frogs, birds, trees, etc.) and a spaceship soundscape (clanks, bangs, gurgles, general repetitive throbbing), both infinitely repeating, for use on the headphones at work.

I never got round to actually doing this, but the program itself looks pretty cool. Requires some faffing (which you probably won't even notice yourself having to do if you're used to unix).

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Sony ear-buds (the one with the ruber ends that make a loving seal with your ear canal) - - are about as good as any noise-cancelling earphones I've tried, and have the side-effect of being good for other things too. They also have excellent bass response (if you're into that sort of thing).

On the subject of nature noises and deafening silence, a friend of mine swears by "pink noise" - And he's a pretty smart chap, so you might want to try it. Not sure if there's a similar app for PC.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

It is, it isn't. If you don't have concrete partitions, get over it. Don't bother your staff with micromanagement--if you need to do it maybe your hired professionals aren't as professional as you think.

Li-fan Chen
Thursday, July 22, 2004

"hey guys, get a room . . . do some work . . . shut the @@@@ up" all work for me.

Friday, July 23, 2004

It could be worse.

A bank I worked at piped music into the dev floor. Not the developer's choice of music, mind, someone else's.

As I was leaving, they were talking about banning headphones/personal stereo gear. On the basis that the call centre staff aren't allowed them, so why should the developers...

They positively encouraged speaker-phone use and made sure meetings disturbed people by not having any meeting rooms...


They're going to go bust eventually.

BTW -- prozac doesn't work like that. It doesn't make you "perky". It'd actually be better for you than for the HR person -- once you're on it, you just sort of stop caring as much. You won't be able to work any better, but you just won't care. So you don't get depressed by it. It's less of a "happy pill" and more of an "immunisation from the world's irritation pill".

That and the feeling sick at odd times. And it gave me joint pains all over.

Katie Lucas
Friday, July 23, 2004

I can use headphones to block out background noise… but what I can’t stand is bad smells… smelly sweaty feet/armpits :((((  My nose can tell when someone has arrived  :(((

Cecilia Loureiro
Friday, July 23, 2004

> A bank I worked at (snip story)

Start with an L? In a city also starting with L? Or B and P? There was no music there when I was at either of those two places, but the rest sounds familiar.

Friday, July 23, 2004

The difference for me is night and day. I waited till my company had agreed to a huge load of database work (of which i am the only programmer doing) and told them it will take 8 months to do - but if i am forced to sit in the same area as the sales people who constantly talk about all sorts of rubbish and the phone is constantly ringing then it would take 12 months to do. The then would be losing 4 months worth of money so they got an office built for me but until that was built i moved to the boardroom. My speed improved dramatically and i started to enjoy the job again.

Friday, July 23, 2004

> from Peopleware:
> you can only do routine work with music music. Effectiveness
> of creative work will be sufficiently decreased

Guess there's a typo there but was the original quote saying you can only do routine work with any sort of music?

Because I can barely manage any work without it, and creative work is infinitely easier with music going...

Friday, July 23, 2004

Go tell the fat cunts to shut up. If they don't listen, shit in their tea cups.

If they're going to act like they work on building site, so should you.

Mr Jack
Friday, July 23, 2004

This all describes my workplace to a "T".

We have one long hallway that onnects most of the building.  People shout up and down the hallway, hold conversations outside of offices.

I have been told that I cannot shut my office door, because it sends the message to others "that I do not want to be a part of the company".  Total crap.

I am the only developer here.  With the exception of 4 people that do publishing/printing tasks, we are all sales and marketing.  They have absilutely no respect for other peoples workspace, but the second your speak in their "area" a memo is sent by their department head asking everyone else to be professional.  Total crap.

The issue there wasn't just the noise, but also the lack of respect for others' working environment that it represented and brought into the open.

I think this is the key to it all.  My attitude at work has been worsened due to the constant distractions, and it is harder to get my job done.

Thus ends my rant.

The Wanderer
Friday, July 23, 2004

I'm sitting hear trying to work with resonances from the cheap air conditioning drilling a hole in my head and making my stomach vibrate.

The snag is, everybody else has a macho attitude to the office environment. (Their jobs don't involve much abstratc thought, so they're OK.)

Air Condo Victim
Friday, July 23, 2004

"tell the fat cunts to shut up. If they don't listen, shit in their tea cups. If they're going to act like they work on building site, so should you."

This is sound advise. Listen to Mr. Jack.

Diego Madrid
Friday, July 23, 2004

I was told I could listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from 9 to 11.

Milton Waddams
Friday, July 23, 2004

Humans can be quite adaptable.  Management could turn off the A/C but leave the fans running so the office could be hot and noisy and it would still be possible to get some work done.  OTOH, people can't completely turn off parts of their brain.  The noise and other distractions will take their toll in stress and reduced productivity. 

I used to work for a company that provided its developers with quiet private offices.  It was a great place to work.  Talented people did high quality work, there was low turn over and the company was always profitable.  Unforunately, the owners eventually decided to sell the company and it doesn't exist any more.

There are quite a number of posters to this forum that complain about the quality of their work space, but never do much about it.  On forums like this developers should be able to discuss the quality of various companies and help each other find better environments.  There is a lot of discussion but not much happens.  Examples of better work places include Microsoft and Fog Creek, and maybe SAS.  But that is as far as we get.  Maybe there just aren't other good places to work.  Some posters claim they work in a good environment, but won't tell us where.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Pink noise is much more natural than white noise. It's the difference between the sound of traffic of the ocean surf and a television tuned to a dead channel. I could generate some pink noise & make an mp3 which you could loop indefinately, but you might be better off with a "nature sounds" CD.

Rather than active noise cancelling headphones, headphones that are designed to black the outside world simply by putting lots of layers of foam between your eardrums & the ouside work much better & are much cheaper, but I would argue they work TOO good and you could miss the fire alarm as a result.

The problem with earplugs is they reduce everything by an equal amount. If the ambient office noise level is 30db and it reduces it by 15 db to 15db, the 60db noisy co-worker will still be 45db, just as loud relative to the silence behind your earplugs.

Here's an idea. Keep an extremely bright lamp at your desk. The clip on kind used in construction work with a 150-200 watt bulb. When someone is talking too loud, shine this light on them. It's the visual equivelant of what they're doing to your ears. Clear out your desk because you won't last long.
Friday, July 23, 2004

>>> headphones that are designed to black the outside world simply by putting lots of layers of foam between your eardrums & the ouside work much better & are much cheaper, but I would argue they work TOO good<<<

What brand?  I've tried David-Clark hearing protectors.  They can be helpful in a lab with a lot of fan (white) noise.  But it's like having a big C-clamp around my head.  It exchanges one irritation for another.  And they still let the annoying sounds, like talking, through.

>>>The problem with earplugs is they reduce everything by an equal amount. <<<

True.  Sometimes they make the annoying sounds more annoying when the background noise are attenuated.  Like the headphones, they can help in certain situations.

>>>Here's an idea.<<<

Here's an even better idea:  When you are searching for your next job,  make working conditions a significant factor in your selection criteria.  If you talk to recruiters make it clear that you're looking for a company dedicated to quality and one indication is the work environment.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Koss makes some decent sealed headphones, as does Sony.

Any "closed" style headphones should have some noise attenuating factor, but how much & how comfortable is something I really don't know. One of my old work buddies had these great cheap Sony headphones that were light weight & blocked out a LOT of noise, but I don't recall what model.
Saturday, July 24, 2004

"sound of traffic of the ocean surf "

should be

"sound of traffic or the ocean surf "
Saturday, July 24, 2004

"Shit, the pin fell out," used to work well in the Army, while you held up the grenade.

Management material
Saturday, July 24, 2004

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