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We have a software shop with a cubicle farm where cubicles have non-transparent (painted drywall) walls about 1,5 meters high. There's a corridor running through the farm.

Most of the time all the employees who work in the farm sit rather quietly inside their cubicles staring into their computer screens and pressing keys on their keyboards and so to a person who walks the corridor the farm looks empty and uninhabited. So that person may talk on the phone a lot louder than he would if he knew that there were people around. The same way if a group of people walks the corridor they may decide to talk a lot louder that they would otherwise.

Note that although making walls transparent would visualize the situation non-transparent wall are good for employees because they help them concentrate.

I see it as a design problem. There's a need to somehow hint to those people in the corridor that the farm is not empty, there are many people in it currently trying to work and expecting a rather quiet atmosphere.

That hint would better be something appealing to the human side - perhaps a sign "N people in ten feet range working around" every several meters of he corridor or something instead of "please respect each other and shut up" in all caps.

Is there a known solution to this problem?

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    Simple: youtube.com/watch?v=RzToNo7A-94 – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jan 13 '15 at 12:28
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    A question for Workplace Stack Exchange perhaps? – Matt Obee Jan 13 '15 at 15:37
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    Ditch the cubicles! – Crissov Jan 13 '15 at 15:59
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about office decorum. – DA01 Jan 13 '15 at 17:32
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    @Rumi P. I just don't think a community of user experience designers, information architects and Human Computer Interaction researchers is necessarily best placed to answer a question about workplace design and employee behaviour - not when there's another community that specialises in the topic. The solution isn't necessarily technological. It's an interesting question and I think it would receive better answers (more informed and holistic answers) at Workplace Stack Exchange. – Matt Obee Jan 13 '15 at 17:33
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If you want to avoid the simple and obvious solutions:

  • place signs above the cubicles reminding people to be quiet
  • encourage cubicle dwellers to discourage loud behavior through constant reminders ("Shh!" or "Please keep it down")

I suspect the only cultural design cues you could rely on are reverence (church, monastery) or respect (library, courtroom, bank). Though you may be able to change the lighting and get the desired effect as well.

As you don't indicate the type of business or the employee culture you have developed or are trying to develop (beyond a quiet culture) then it's hard to make suggestions.

First of all, though, spend time and money adding sound dampening to the office. The hard drywall cubicle walls you speak of are great reflectors, and spread sound around very easily. Consider adding heavy cloth to them. Replace ceiling tiles with more absorbent tiles. If you can't reduce total noise, you can at least prevent it from bouncing around so it stays very local. Encourage workers to add rugs to their cubicles, or bring stuffed toys. There are some fairly nice foam audio control products cut in attractive patterns that can be added throughout the space, particularly in the high traffic areas, that won't look out of place.

Second, choose the cultural cues that remind people of typically quiet places for their culture. For instance, in the US, having even a few rows of floor to ceiling bookshelves will suggest a place of quiet thought. Using gentle desk lamps in public areas suggestive of banking or libraries producing small pools of light rather than communal, harsh direct overhead lighting will encourage quiet behavior.

Rather than having long corridors through cubicles, embrace labyrinth or maze design patterns. These require thought to navigate, and distracted movement through them, such as during a phone call, won't produce good results. Forcing people to think about where they're at and where they are going will cause them to be more present in the space and aware of their surroundings. It will reduce rushing.

Also, and this may be cross-cultural, reducing overall lighting produces a very pronounced effect in human noise. When I worked in an engineering company many years ago, one design department had their overhead lights turned off (they actually just removed the bulbs from overhead fixtures except in certain areas of the floor), and each employee had desk lamps that fit their needs. Watching people move into and out of this space was dramatic - they immediately decreased their volume of ongoing conversation (phone or while walking with others) moving into the space, and increased it when moving out of it. I don't recall ever hearing anyone actively shush others - this seemed to be natural human behavior. This would require some investment in desk and task lamps, but may be overall cheaper and more effective than most other methods. It might even save you some electricity.

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Print full-size images of people at work similar to what sometimes happens with empty shop hoardings.

This would be effective because it's a visual reminder that people are behind the blank cubicle walls whilst preserving the privacy of those working and preventing them from being further distracted (if you had see-through cubicle walls).

Some alterations on this could include:

A - You could print signs on top to be specific about the intended purpose e.g 'this is a place of work, please keep noise to a minimum to allow others to focus'

B - the pictures of people could include images of people 'requesting quiet' e.g 'shhing' someone

C - instead of people working the pictures could be of people acting out the desired behaviour. E.g turning off their phones/putting them away, walking quietly, asking others to be quiet. This 'visual' of the desired behaviour would register as an experience. As suggested by Adam Davis' answer these images could be set in a bank/library setting to denote quiet

Also of note is that, in the same way that people are more likely to throw rubbish on the floor in a dirty/messy public place and more likely to put it in a bin in a clean public place; when you work hard to create an environment people are more likely to help you keep it that way. By sacrificing for something you communicate its important & value.

Example as seen in empty shop hoardings

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    That would also be more visually interesting that white painted walls. – PhillipW Jan 13 '15 at 17:13
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    Could you elaborate on an explanation of your answer? – TankorSmash Jan 13 '15 at 17:34
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    @Tank A full-size picture makes it look like you can see who is the other side of the partition (and is thus a reminder that there is someone there), while maintaining privacy. – Andrew Leach Jan 13 '15 at 18:12
  • I doubt people would change their behavior just by looking at the same picture all day, every day. On the other hand, if it does work (i.e. people are aware of other people around them) why would it only work when they are on the phone? Wouldn't they constantly be aware of other people and be distracted? – kapex Jan 14 '15 at 1:51
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    Wouldn't the pictures provide an extra incentive to talk then and there, as they might contain comment-worthy aspects? After all, the photos in empty shop hoardings are probably not meant to make people think "Nothing interesting here, walk away and don't talk". – O. R. Mapper Jan 14 '15 at 10:47
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I think this is a cultural/social issue but if you want to solve this problem through design I see two options:

  1. Give everyone an enclosed space (office)
  2. Take down all cubicle walls

If being fully immersed in work without distraction is the most important goal then physically divided spaces are the way to go.

If communicating quickly and freely with co-workers is more important than get rid of all the walls and make it easier to communicate while being aware of others.

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Fit sound deadening material along the inside of the corridor to absorb sound ?

If it actually looks like sound deadening material such as this pyramid foam then it has a dual function

  • 1 a physical component: it absorbs sound.

  • 2 a psychological component: its presence is a reminder that that it's there because of a noise problem

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    This appears to be asking for clarification on the original question, or perhaps a tongue-and-cheek comment. It doesn't answer the question at hand. If the suggested action is appropriate, please include rationale. – Evil Closet Monkey Jan 13 '15 at 17:39
  • I've elaborated the answer. – PhillipW Jan 14 '15 at 0:19
  • most off the shelf cubical systems incorporate sound deadening materials. drywall is a sound reflector. – hildred Jan 14 '15 at 4:58
  • 3rd bullet: I used to walk through an entry with the pyramid foam installed. It was actually very uncomfortable entering a space where white noise disappeared. I wanted to get out of these ASAP! – Evil Closet Monkey Jan 14 '15 at 17:05
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I would make an utility which can be connected to Little Snitch (or similar Linux/Windows notification services).

The utility should display the level of desired speech volume (for example as green, yellow and red icons), calculated on the proximity of activated work machines around the user. The closer active coworkers are, the lower should be the conversation level to avoid social disturbance.

Amount of present coworkers makes not much difference, because even if it's just one person in the near cubicle, loud talks will create an inconvenience for that person anyway.

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  • Okay, how will that utility give hints to those people? – sharptooth Jan 13 '15 at 13:41
  • >connected to Little Snitch (or similar Linux/Windows notification services). Through the status icon in the OS panel. – Zoe K Jan 13 '15 at 14:05
  • @ZoeKulsariyeva presumably a person roaming the corridor while talking on the phone does not have a OS panel in front of him/her. I like your idea, and thought of something in the direction when I read the question, but it will need a dedicated display of some kind. – Rumi P. Jan 13 '15 at 14:27
  • Rumi, you are absolutely right. But the problem has a cubicle in the condition, and the cubicle typically has a work station assigned to it. If it was about mobiles, I would thinkā€¦ maybe the same kind of utility that would locate nearby mobiles (hence nearby people) by the strength of a wifi/bluetooth signal, or by other means, monitor your own speech and buzz if you are speaking too loudly. – Zoe K Jan 13 '15 at 15:20
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    @ZoeKulsariyeva I'm still don't think we are talking about the same situation. The way I understand the question, the people in the cubicles are silent. There is somebody outside the cubicles, walking, not using a computer or looking at a mobile device, who is being too loud and disturbing the people in the cubicles. So, there is no need to inform the people who are in the cubicles, but the ones outside. See "to a person who walks the corridor the farm looks empty and inhabitant. So that person may talk on the phone a lot louder than he would if he new that there were people around." – Rumi P. Jan 13 '15 at 15:40
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I don't know of a particular solution to this problem. The first thing I thought of as a non tech solution was having the equivalent of a shop 'open / close' sign above each cubicle.

When a person enters the cubicle they set the sign to occupied (whatever that indicator is) so the person can see who is in.

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please respect each other and shut up

This sounds fine to me. If a colleague is too self-centred to come to this conclusion on their own then they deserve a heavy-handed reminder that other people exist.

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This would probably be complex, and depending on the implementation, it would have the potential to be annoying. However, I think it might be interesting to explore the concept of a user being able to see via a little "widget" who can hear them at a given time.

For example, let's say your cube neighbors down the row (closest to furthest away) are Aaron, Bob, and Clark. When you're talking on the phone, you could have a little widget that shows you pictures of the cube neighbors who can hear you. If you raise your voice a lot, you might see Aaron's, Bob's, and Clark's icons. As you decrease your volume, you might only see Aaron's picture. (Or, this could all be abstracted somehow so it doesn't include your exact neighbors)

The positives would be: a personal touch (you're reminded of WHO can hear you and that they are people, rather than just words); for folks who care about strict privacy, it wouldn't be a reduction in their cube height or wall transparency; users wouldn't need to need to leave their cube to see who might be hearing them-- they'd be able to see with a quick glance at the widget.

Possible negatives would be: users finding it annoying, what if they don't want to see pictures of their neighbors' faces... etc. There would need to be some customization settings for sure.

Not to mention I have no idea how technically feasible this is: it would require access to a seating map of who owns which cubicle, estimating the sound distribution for a particular working environment, figuring out a suitable display for the information given peoples' work contexts, etc... :)

Interesting question, though!

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Perhaps small windows in the wall at standing height, so people can look in but people seated at desks do not see out when at work.

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  • Sorry, but I think this is a terrible idea. Within such a cubicle, I'd be very distracted, constantly wondering (and checking?) whether I'm being watched. – O. R. Mapper Jan 14 '15 at 10:51
  • I was picturing a corridor with windows looking into the adjacent rooms rather than looking into each cubicle per say. However re-reading the question it sounds more like a block of cubicles is forming the corridor, rather than a corridor as such. If the first, I agree it would seem like looking into a particular cubicle, so not recommended. – Alex KeySmith Jan 14 '15 at 16:03

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