Natasha Ashton on the art of managing workplace noise

Natasha Ashton

Natasha Ashton, co-CEO, Petplan

No matter what size your business, your employees probably rub elbows a bit in their workspace. It’s both a fact of life and of space limitations. If you create the right company culture, they’ll become more like a functioning family than a bunch of bickering siblings.

But even the most collaborative colleagues will wrestle with pet peeves from time to time. Whether it’s impromptu office social hours that are too close for comfort or phone chatter happening at a few decibels too many, noise pollution tops the list of many workers’ gripes about their neighbors.

At Petplan, we’ve tackled this topic head-on, as our employees share an open workspace that encompasses a call center, claims adjusters, a marketing and creative team, a sales force and managers alike (not to mention our four-legged office mates).

With so many people working for so many different facets of the business, it takes a delicate balance of tolerance and consideration to keep varying noise preferences in check. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned — loud and clear — about sounding off at work.

If you love them, set them free

Setting up your staff so everyone has the option to “go mobile” will help ease tensions when exuberance reaches intolerable proportions for quieter folks. At Petplan, all of our employees have a laptop they can take to less high-traffic areas, such as meeting and conference rooms, if they need some serenity during the day.

Carving out a few quiet places within the workspace gives your employees the option to retreat when they need to nix the noise and get down to business.

Open Pandora’s Box

Streaming music or white noise can greatly reduce the stress of a noisy co-worker and help increase focus and concentration, so we’ve adopted a permissive policy regarding headphone use by employees.

Drowning out the distraction is sometimes enough to manage the situation and keep frustrations in check, and studies have shown that music in the workplace can actually boost motivation and increase productivity. If bandwidth is an issue and you need to block Pandora or other music-streaming sites, radios (with a headphone jack), iPods and CDs can still do the trick.

Communication is key

Create opportunities for regular social interaction among your employees, across all departments. At Petplan, we host a handful of employee outings throughout the year, but we also encourage everyday mingling, with perks like picnic lunches and Friday cupcakes.

Fostering friendships — or at least friendly acquaintance-ships — can help workers manage differing noise preferences themselves. After all, it’s much easier to ask someone you’re friendly with to keep it down than someone you don’t know well.

Practice strategic eavesdropping

At Petplan, being able to hear everything has at times been beneficial. Our marketing department overhears our sales force answering common questions, which has helped shape some of our prospect communications. Our claims manager can hear our “happiness managers” servicing policyholders with pending claims, which has given her better insight into the customer experience.

Never underestimate the power of strategic eavesdropping — mining the melee for useful information can often turn up gold.

As the saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time, so no matter how you try to accommodate your employees, there are bound to be issues around noise levels in every office. Acknowledging and making allowances for varying preferences can help solve some of the discord, but if all else fails, consider adopting an officewide noise management policy.

As part of an overall approach to providing a positive working environment, an official policy can help make sure everyone’s noise concerns are — ahem — heard.

Natasha Ashton is the co-CEO and co-founder of Petplan pet insurance and its quarterly glossy pet health magazine, Fetch! — both headquartered in Philadelphia. Originally from the U.K., she holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. She can be reached at [email protected]

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