Activity Based Working: What Is A Silent Zone?

Different workers require different spaces throughout the day to complete their tasks. Activity Based Working gives workers the option to switch between the hustle and bustle and a quieter space, which is key for a productive and happy workforce.

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Constant exposure to stimuli is expected in the modern era, but this can have a huge impact on productivity levels and even cause stress and poor health conditions. The good news is that even small doses of silence throughout the day can have positive effects. Incorporating a silent zone in your office can improve employee wellbeing, increase productivity and reduce stress.

The silent zone is exactly what it says on the tin - a space dedicated to quiet. Everyone needs a bit of quiet sometimes to meet deadlines or concentrate on their tasks, even those employees that enjoy loud buzzing working environments such as the social zone. In the silent zone, distractions such as printers, coffee machines, chatting colleagues and music are reduced to a minimum.

“Before the pandemic it was not uncommon to spot colleagues wearing headphones, setting their ‘do not disturbs’ or working from home when they had a deadline to hit and needed to avoid distractions. Many employees have reported being more productive working from home because of the lack of distractions and interruptions and the silent zone in the office should provide this environment in the workplace – a little like the quiet carriages you find on trains” – Jenny Hicks, Head of Technology at the Midwich Group PLC.

Research by Ipsos and the Workspace Futures Team of Steelcase corroborates this concept. The study used 10,500 workers across Europe, North America and Asia and revealed that there is insufficient privacy in the workplace. It found that 85% of participants were dissatisfied with their working environment and couldn’t concentrate while 31% said they had to leave the office to get work completed.

Participants also commonly cited that they felt distracted or stressed due to colleagues on phone calls or having conversations with each other.

“A key takeaway from our study is that the open plan isn’t to blame any more than reverting to all private offices can be a solution. There is no single type of optimal work setting. Instead, it’s about balance. Achieving the right balance between working in privacy and working together is critical for any organization that wants to achieve innovation and advance” – Donna Flynn, director at Steelcase’s Workspace Futures research group.

Similarly, a study conducted by the University of California revealed that a typical office worker only gets around 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes roughly 25 minutes to regain concentration.

Occasionally working in silence also encourages more creativity and collaboration. While ideas may come to life in the collaboration zone, many employees still need time to process and work out the logistics in private and quiet.

Processing in silence is key for engagement. For example, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos told Fortune Magazine that his team of senior executives take the opening minutes of meetings in silence to absorb the written word. This ensures that any documents receive undivided attention.


What Does A Silent Zone Look Like?

The typical workplace environment is busy and full of clattering keyboards or overhearing video calls. The most important aspect of the silent zone is to create a space that feels relaxing with minimum distractions. Connectivity is key, especially in agile working environments. Businesses must strive to strike the balance between connectivity and privacy. 

Acoustic noise

Glass walls or windows can help businesses achieve privacy within the office. Windows to the outside world or other office zones help employees feel connected to the rest of the office, without having to engage with it. Plus, natural light and views outside can increase workplace performance by up to 25%, benefit health and reduce eyestrain.

Desk dividers can also be used to create personal spaces within the silent zone to provide focus and privacy. Additionally, businesses can add functions to them such as turning one side into a whiteboard, a calendar or notepad. Walls and screens can also drastically reduce office noise by providing an acoustic shadow. In the same way that parasols block the light, screens block soundwaves.

Private pods or booths can be implemented to give employees more privacy to make confidential phone calls or meetings and time away to focus. This also creates a more professional environment for calls without background noise.

Find out more about how sound masking boosts productivity and employee satisfaction here.

Visual noise

Visual noise is just like the distracting noise of the kettle except it refers to distractions we can see such as messy cables or cluttered desks. To combat this, silent zones should be minimalistic and only include items that are necessary to complete work – with one exception, the houseplant.

Research conducted by psychologists at Exeter University found that office plants can increase wellbeing by 47%, increase productivity by 38% and boost memory by up to 20%. Plants also improve the quality of air inside offices. This concept goes all the way back to a NASA study in the 1980s when researchers were looking for ways to improve air quality in a sealed spacecraft. Plants can help employees in the silent zone to feel more comfortable and soothed – aiding concentration and quality of work.

Plants also boast sound-absorbing capabilities. Some offices use partitions made of plants to separate workspaces. To help reduce noise, incorporate smaller arrangements, use large planters and place them around the perimeter of the office to sound reflect off the walls and onto the leaves.

Some businesses have incorporated meditation spaces and sleeping pods into silent zones. This offers employees a chance to step away from work and recharge. It can reduce stress and anxiety and boost motivation. For businesses that can’t afford that luxury, offering a subscription to meditation tools, such as Headspace, might be worthwhile.


Case Study: The Alan Turing Institute

The Alan Turing Institute is the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence. Its HQ is in the British Library, divided into different working zones.

Morgan Lovell was tasked with creating an office to house 90 faculty members, positioning themselves as a world leader in data research. They wanted a space that reflected their personality and provided researchers with the facilities to carry out their research and collaborate with peers.

Morgan Lovell created different zones through a combination of technology and acoustics to provide spaces for productive work. The design includes a variety of work zones, from concentration and work pods to a collaboration area and a communal tea point.

The quiet zone is outlined by glass panelling, providing protection from the noise in collaboration and social areas. The glass panelling can also be written on so that whenever inspiration strikes, there’s a place to document it.

The Alan Turing Institute is a great example of activity based working, implementing different environments to elevate engagement, critical thinking and research at the highest level.

The Alan Turing Institute Office

What Technology Is Needed In A Silent Zone?

Technology can help employees make the most of their time in the silent zone and maximise efficiency and productivity.

Individual monitors will undoubtedly be needed to complete work in peace. Technology that features flicker-free and low blue light emission is important as employees may spend long periods of time concentrating. These features reduce the threat of fatigue and eye damage. Additionally, 4K monitors with exceptional image and multitasking capabilities help employees complete their tasks efficiently.

Digital signage is key in the silent zone as businesses will still need to communicate with their employees. Large format displays are used for displaying brand messaging, updating the latest news and showcasing instructions on how to use the silent zone. It’s important to minimise visual noise and tuck away any cables or accessories.

Choosing technology with low noise will bring a sense of calm and decrease distractions in the silent zone. Noise-cancelling headphones can also be used as an extra precaution to enhance concentration and productivity. Comfort should be considered if employees will be wearing headphones for long periods of time.

Steelcase believes that employees want a better experience in the office where they can easily shift between collaboration and solo work. Activity Based Working gives employees the freedom to choose how and where they work, resulting in positive impacts for the business. Silent zones offer a space to concentrate and drive productivity without distractions.

If you missed our previous blog post about the Collaboration Zone, click the button below!

What is a collaboration zone?