How to Build a Culture That Honors Quiet Time

If you could travel back in time to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to visit the legendary meeting hall where the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were doing their work, you’d find something rather strange.

The street in front of Independence Hall was covered with a giant mound of dirt.

The framers of the US Constitution had ordered the construction of this earthen sound because they were concerned that the noises of horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and conversations outside would disturb the intense concentration that would be necessary for completing their task. The delegates weren’t going for total monastic silence. The historical records show that there was plenty of vocal debate and disagreement. But there was an underlying recognition that the group needed a quiet container for doing their extremely challenging work. That was the point of the big dirt mound.

Fast forward about 240 years, and you’ll find that lawmakers in the United States have a rather different attitude toward noise. One of us, Justin, for several years as a director worked in the US House of Representatives, and he consistently found that it was too noisy to think. With cable news blasting, Twitter notifications dinging, high-decibel alarms signaling votes, to say nothing of the informational noise that pervades Capitol Hill: endless time-sensitive emails and the constant pressures of networking, politicking, and media management.

The example of this radical shift over 240 years illustrates a simple fact: An organizational culture can be noisy, or it can be quiet.

A World of Noise

There’s empirical evidence that life is noisier than ever before — there are louder and more ubiquitous TVs, speakers, and electronic device notifications in public spaces and open-plan offices. Across Europe, an estimated 450 million people, roughly 65% ​​of the population, live with noise levels that the World Health Organization deems hazardous to health. All this has serious implications for our mental health, our physical health, and our ability to generate creative work.

The meaning of noise can sometimes be subjective. One person’s symphony is another person’s annoyance. We define “noise” as all the unwanted sound and mental stimulation that interferes with our capacity to make sense of the world and our ability to act upon our intentions. In this sense, noise is more than a nuisance. It’s a primary barrier to being able to identify and implement solutions to the challenges we face as individuals, organizations, and even whole societies.

So, how do we transform norms of noisiness? On our teams and in our broader organizations, how can we build cultures that honor the importance of silence?

If we want organizational cultures that honor quiet, there are a few general principles we need to apply to make the transformation. The first is that we have to deliberately talk about it; We need to have clear conversations about our expectations around constant connectivity, when it’s permissible to be offline, and when it’s acceptable to reserve spaces of uninterrupted attention. These conversations can get into deeper cultural questions like whether it’s possible to be comfortable in silence together rather than always trying to fill the space, or whether it’s OK to be multitasking when another person is sharing something with you.

We’ve found that, across different settings and situations, answering the following three questions can help teams begin to honor quiet time.

In what ways do I create noise that negatively impacts others?

Starting a conversation about shared quiet doesn’t just mean seizing the opportunity to point fingers at other people’s noisy habits. The best starting point for a conversation on group norms is a check-in with yourself. How are you contributing to the auditory and informational noise facing the greater collective?

Maybe you unwittingly leave ringers and notifications on full blast. Maybe you “think out loud” or habitually interrupt others. Perhaps you impulsively post on social media or send excessive texts or emails that require responses. Maybe you play music or podcasts in common spaces without checking in with others or jump on important work calls while your daughter is sitting next to you doing her homework.

Take some time to question whether any given habit that’s generating noise is necessary or if it’s really just an unexamined impulse — a default that needs to be reset. If your self-observation doesn’t yield clear insights, ask a truth-teller in your life for observations about how you could do better.

What noisy habits bother me most?

Susan Griffin-Black, the co-CEO of EO Products, a natural personal care product company, tells us that she made a vow years ago to, “never be on my phone or computer when someone is talking to me, no multitasking when I ‘m with someone else.” She upholds her golden rule, despite having hundreds of employees, a family, and a lot of social commitments.

Like Susan Griffin-Black’s commitment to not multitask in the presence of others, you can set a golden rule for mitigating noise or bringing in more deliberate quiet. Model what you want to see more of in the world. Stop to consider what you value most when it comes to mitigating noise and finding quiet. What personal golden rule reflects that? Or, alternatively, consider what noisy habits bother you most. What golden rule would address those?

How can I help others find the quiet time they need?

In the 1990s, as an executive with Citysearch (now a division of Ticketmaster), Michael Barton noticed a problem. Workers, particularly programmers and developers, were struggling with noise and frequent interruptions in the open plan office. A young analyst at the company offered him an idea: give each team member a “red sash” — a three-foot-long/three-inch-wide strip of bright red fabric — to wear as a “do not disturb” sign. There would be no stigma involved with wearing it if everyone knew they could simply open their drawer, take out their red sash, put it over their neck, and be considered “out of the office.” Barton took the idea up the chain, and the company decided to try it.

The red sash was not a panacea. It didn’t eliminate many of the problems of noise and interruption. But it was a start. It led to several other experiments, including quiet phone-booth-sized mini-workstations and a hermetic “tech cave” for coding work. More importantly, however, the red sash intervention raised the issue of noise and distraction and opened an important dialogue.

Where it’s appropriate, and when it’s within your influence, consider how you can be a champion for quiet — not just in the whole organization, but specifically for the people who lack the power or autonomy to structure their own circumstances. Maybe you’re in a position in your company where you can call out the plight of an engineer or copywriter who obviously needs a sanctuary from the workplace din. In the personal sphere, maybe you suspect your introverted nephew could use an occasional break from boisterous family events, and you can gently raise the issue with your sibling.

While you can’t set the overall group norms and culture unilaterally on the basis of what you think is right, you can be on the lookout for new ideas to propose or new possibilities for managing the soundscape or enhancing the ambiance, especially ones that serve the interests of those who lack influence.

Transforming Norms of Noise

The participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention had norms that honored quiet deliberation. Facilitating pristine attention was a shared goal. That big mound of dirt reminded them — and the public — that the point of their gathering was to get beyond distraction in order to do important work. While a mound of dirt would not solve today’s problems (the noise is so often inside our offices and homes), there are ways, as we’ve seen above, to shift organizational cultures with respect to noise and quiet.

At Citysearch, it was the red sash. For Susan Griffin-Black, it’s adhering to a golden rule. But there are many more ways to help create cultures of quiet. At some organizations, it’s “no email Fridays” or “no meeting Wednesdays.” At others, it’s eliminating the expectation of being available and on electronic devices during weekends or after 5 pm. For some workplaces, a redesign of the floor plan might help specific kinds of workers get the focus that they need. One solution might be authorizing uninterrupted blocks of time during the workday. Another might be giving up on the open floor plan and moving the whole office to a new building. For others still, it’s eliminating email as the primary means of communication and turning instead to a twice-daily team update meetings or an electronic system that preserves quiet headspace.

Across our society today, norms of noisiness run deep. Demands like constant connectivity and maintaining a competitive advantage still prevail in most office cultures. Few organizations prize or prioritize pristine human attention. But there are simple strategies we can employ in order to find our own personal sanctuaries and to shift broader cultures. By reclaiming silence in the workplace, we can create the conditions for reducing burnout and enhancing creative problem solving.

Even in an annoisy world, we can be quiet together.

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