Keep the Noise Down Please

Author: Hannes Rügheimer

May 03, 2023 Safety at work

How “noise canceling culture” prevents the stress from constant communications bombardment.

The dreaded notification tone announces a new email. A little later, a notification window for the company’s internal chat tool pops up. Shortly thereafter, the work phone rings. A few minutes later, the private cell phone buzzes, signaling an acquaintance’s text message. According to a study conducted by think tank Next Work Innovation, today’s office workers are interrupted on average every four minutes. Because the brain needs time to refocus on the task at hand, this leads to constant stress and permanent dissatisfaction among many employees. From the company’s point of view, this unfavorable work culture causes gigantic productivity losses. The study cited at the beginning of this article estimates that up to three days of work are lost per person and month.
This is because the constant barrage of news and communication has the same effect as consistent noise interference. In the English-speaking world, it is therefore increasingly referred to as “noise”. And the search for countermeasures gave rise to the idea of a “noise canceling culture” in companies. Incidentally, the concept has nothing to do with noise canceling headphones, which filter out ambient noise, for example on public transportation. At least not in the literal sense. But it is the noise canceling culture’s goal to filter out the constant notification noise. As the term suggests, this comes down to a matter of corporate culture in particular.
“The specific solutions to this problem vary from company to company,” says Johannes Hopp, Head of Occupational Medicine and Health Management at DEKRA. “But the basic patterns are often the same: Companies consider putting focus or silent working hours in place, they take a close look at meeting structures, and they put the work organization to the test.” However, the DEKRA expert emphasizes, such solutions must be established company-wide or at least at the departmental level. “Even supervisors must be very sensitive about whether or not to ignore the do-not-disturb phase for urgent matters.”
Many concepts and measures can also be implemented when working from home, and self-employed people or freelancers could learn a thing or two as well. Even in a private environment, people can apply message noise suppression to improve their well-being.
Focused communication
Incidentally, the concept does not call for shutting down communication channels altogether or turning back the clock on digital messaging. “Rather, it has a lot to do with the expectations of everyone involved,” says Johannes Hopp. For example, he says that there has to be a consensus within the company that emails or chat messages will not be answered immediately. A heightened awareness of the problem on all sides is also important: Does every person on this mailing list really need to receive a copy of this particular message? Is clarification of this issue necessary right now and in this exact way? Does an online meeting really need to be held to coordinate this issue?
The triumph of digital communication in the wake of the Corona pandemic in particular has also given rise to some downsides: With the next team meeting just a few clicks away, as there is no longer a need to book a meeting room and external employees do not have to travel, corrective measures are also eliminated. Noise canceling culture as part of the corporate culture is intended to revive this filter function – in the box below, employees and companies will find practical tips to help with the implementation.
“Experience shows that it makes sense for companies to be supported with topics such as health management or emergency psychology,” Johannes Hopp reports. “It is usually easier for external observers to identify stumbling blocks or problematic processes. In addition, companies must keep in mind that failed attempts leave behind ‘scorched earth’. People are quick to say ‘that didn’t work last time around’.” He says that it is much better if such a project works right away and brings about noticeable improvements.
5 tips to combat notification noise: Noise canceling culture in practice
Focused work hours
A company needs to define focused or silent work hours that apply to everyone, including managers. Technical tools can offer support, for example by displaying that “xy is not available until 11:30 am”. Even when working from home or in a private environment, the phone can be muted or the email program closed at certain times.
Reduce Meetings
The number and scope of meetings – both online and face-to-face – need to be scrutinized from time to time. Can meetings be combined or held via other channels? The remaining meetings need a clearly defined task and time limit.
Improve organizational and spatial factors
Can stress be reduced or eliminated through simple measures? One example is having a material cabinet located in an employee’s office – every person who comes to get office materials from there causes a disturbance. Can the storage facility be set up in a place where it does not disturb anyone? Does it make sense to define specific access times? Plenty of similar examples can be found in real life.
Clarify responsibilities
It must be clear within the company who is the right contact person for which issue or who has the authority to make a decision. Defining this and establishing it in practice is a management task. The time that companies invest in clarifying these issues pays off several times over in the long run, in the form of reduced friction losses.
Get everyone involved
Changes in corporate culture imposed top-down are doomed to fail. Instead, you need the willingness of everyone involved to live by the agreed changes. Workshops can help to develop concepts and guidelines. In the process, it should also be clarified: Are the measures being considered realistically feasible? If management rejects employee proposals, it needs to provide clear reasons for doing so.
Three Questions for Johannes Hopp
Mr. Hopp, what distinguishes occupational health management from the classic field of occupational medicine?
Hopp: There are legal guidelines and requirements for occupational health care and examinations. This is only the case in some areas when it comes to occupational health management, such as risk assessment of mental stress. For their own sake companies also need to address issues that are not prescribed by law, such as promoting workplace health. After all, employee motivation and performance are among a company’s most valuable assets. Of course, every company does not have to do everything. However, it should precisely determine and define what makes sense for its own operations.
How can a company go about this?
Hopp: The best thing to do is to look at the stress profiles for the individual positions or functions. Concrete assessments have established analysis tools that help identify the main stress factors. The next step is to work out which measures or changes can reduce such stress. However, there are also times when this is simply not possible. In such cases, the goal must be to help employees better compensate for the stress.
In your experience, what are mistakes to avoid?
Hopp: In practice, it’s very important to get the managers on board and educate them when taking such measures in the company. Otherwise, problematic communication breakdowns can occur: Employees ask their boss about the purpose of the announced risk assessment. If the boss then replies, “I don’t know, it’s just another measure imposed on us”, the project is bound to fail. It is therefore very important that managers have a head start in terms of information so that they can competently answer their team’s questions.
DEKRA as a partner: Occupational health screening
With experienced occupational physicians, occupational safety specialists, and experts in occupational health management, DEKRA helps companies create a working environment that promotes the health of their workforce and complies with statutory regulations. The range of services extends from occupational medical care to company medical examinations and prevention, as well as aptitude tests for applicants and employees to occupational health management. The latter extends disease prevention to include active health promotion. In times of an aging workforce and an increasingly noticeable shortage of skilled workers, this is an important investment by companies in the health and performance of their employees. The services also include risk assessments of mental stress, corporate integration management, and the establishment of an occupational health promotion program.