Working in Silence

I can be very productive with a certain amount of background noise, I find it easier to write if there is music playing or I am in a moderately noisy coffee house where there are many low conversations going on in the background. But when I really need to think hard about something–typically a problem or a challenge I am facing–and give it all of my concentration and focus, then working in silence is best. 

Working in SilenceWorking in Silence

“Silence is a vastly underused information aid; solitude–especially in the age of twitter–is not an affliction but an emotional and intellectual oasis.”
Beston Jack Abrams

When Anthony Scampavia was planning new engineering work environments at Cisco in 1991 he took the novel step of asking everyone what would make them more productive. About a quarter of engineering had a strong preference for a quiet area with the lights set off or low. They preferred being able to use a desk light in a cubicle so that they could be in control of the amount of light, but more importantly they wanted silence. So he established one area as the “quiet dark area” with the lights turned off and signs posted that said,  “This is a quiet area, if you need to make a call or have a conversation please use a conference room.” Over the years as Cisco grew that many of the engineering areas had an ad hoc “silent dark” area where the lights were turned off and there was very little ambient noise.

But these were without much support from facilities which had become much more focused on the small direct costs they could measure instead of the impact of the work environment on productivity. I think this is an easy mistake to make in a startup as well.

Empty Classroom--working in silenceThe Birds Are Chirping

“Silence is a portable sanctuary.”
Beston Jack Abrams

I remember arriving about 7am at Foothill College for a Silicon Valley Code Camp talk at I was giving later that day. The college was more than a mile from 280 and as I sat in the classroom I could hear the birds singing. My double pane bedroom window is about 600 feet from 280 so most mornings silence is not a sound I hear very often. Working in silence, I took the time to walk through my presentation a few times and really concentrate on the key points I wanted to make later that day.

Where the Hell Have you Been, the Day is Half Over

I can remember coming in early to work–around 6am–at 3Com in the late 1980’s. It was completely quiet and  I had gone to leave a note on Kirby Hansen’s desk about a hot item–not wanting it to get caught behind the wall of morning email–and I was surprised to find him already there working in silence.

“Wow, your whole team is in early,” I remarked.

He looked at me and smiled, saying “Where the hell have you been the day is half over!”

He managed the new product introduction engineers, who I realized as I looked around were all at their desks already hard at work. Because their days were typically interrupt driven and they also needed to talk to contract manufacturers in Europe, coming in early allowed them to get an hour or two of work done without interruption or catch counterparts in Europe still more or less in the middle of their afternoon.


“Night opens a door into a cellar–you can smell it coming.
William Stafford in “Sayings of the Blind”

One of my freelance jobs in college was contributing to a book data base and publishing system for Reference Research Associates founded by Tom Graham and Ridge Evers. Evers went on to be a prime mover behind Quick Books at Intuit but at the time he was more concerned with arms control. We were working on a book on “fast patrol boats” a navel platform that had been revitalized by a new generation of precision guided missiles (like Exocet and Harpoon) that could compensate for many of the deficiencies of a small boat moving fast as a weapons platform. But I would work quite late in downtown Palo Alto and as I was walking to my car I would hear footsteps. I realized that it was actually an echo of my own steps that was now clearly audible.  It was strange to realize that the echoes must also exist during the day but were too faint to be picked up in the welter of sounds from busy streets.

I think one of the reasons working late can be productive is that interruptions stop, or at least slack off, and there is very little background noise to distract you.

Sharing a Table

When I worked at Silvar-Lisco as an applications engineer there were three of us in the same role who shared a conference room table with one phone and a white board for about six months. This table was separated by cubicle partitions from the “demo room” and it would happen that the phone would ring during a demo and one of us would have to grab it. We were in the field or in meetings so that we only ended up sitting together for an hour or two a day. It was not quiet. But it worked because most of our job involved conversations with customers, with engineering, with sales and we could learn from each others phone calls and experiences. I think the  “open office” or “war room’ model works for small work teams that need to collaborate intensively and where is a premium on shared situational awareness and shared learning. But the engineers thought were were crazy and they were right in that it would have been a very difficult environment to write code in.

Key Take-Aways on Working in Silence

  • To the extent that it’s possible let people shape and control their environment. Many engineers and scientists who need to think deeply about a problem benefit from silence and a lack of interruption. I think it’s easy to underestimate for a sales and marketing oriented founder who spends most of the day in meetings or on the phone to underestimate the impact of disruptions on a someone trying to keep a complex problem in their head in order to solve it.  At a minimum it’s probably worth 15-20 minutes, perhaps 30-45 if it goes on for a few minutes.
  • There are risks to silent workplaces that discourage hallway conversations and informal chit chat over the cubicle wall. I think we need to set aside specific break areas or break conference rooms where people can take a coffee break and catch up on what’s happening.
  • If you define a bullpen or “war room” area as a primary work location it’s probably a good idea to set aside a few desks or a conference room or two in a quiet area of the building so that even people who need to collaborate can get some thinking time without interruption.
  • I think it’s hard to mix folks who will make a lot of calls–whether they are, sales and marketing or support, with people who need blocks of uninterrupted time to being able to think deeply about a problem. Headphones can allow folks who benefit from music to work next to folks who need silence, but there is not an easy way to prevent a phone conversation from interrupting someone’s train of thought.
  • I think you have to be very careful about optimizing the costs that you can see, e.g. office floor space, and ignoring costs that are hard to measure like interruptions and a lack of effective communication and collaboration.

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