young woman with book in autumn park
March 9, 2024

Productivity: The benefits of silence for your work

By Paul Laughlin

Over decades I had become used to the constant noise of a corporate working environment, with no opportunity for silence. Nor did I particularly seek it when I was younger. I felt like I thrived on the “buzz” of activity around me & opportunities to interact with my team and stakeholders.

However, when I started my own business, almost a decade ago, I discovered the power of silence. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many leaders into discovering prolonged home working, I had discovered one of the benefits = quiet. This became a sought-after commodity towards the end of my senior leadership role for a bank. The development of my self-awareness and training in leadership & productivity taught me the importance of time to think and time to read more.

But, it was not until I was my Boss and spending the majority of my time alone that I discovered quite how powerful silence can be. Now when I visit client offices or hear my mentoring clients reflect on their challenges, I am struck by the need for more silence. The need for them to have quiet to pause, reflect and do some quality thinking before their next step. So, in this post let me make the case for why I think you too should embrace the revival of a quiet workplace. A need for silence while you work.

How can silence help when you have so much to do?

In brief, silence can enable you to think better. My experience of most clients’ offices is that they are open plan noisy spaces that make it difficult to concentrate. Many staff, especially those needing to concentrate on technical work like coding or modelling, use headphones to tackle this. Music or white noise may help to some extent but can itself become a distraction or cause your thoughts to drift.

Given how many staff demonstrate the need for quiet by putting on headphones, I am amazed more companies and office designers do not see this as a call for change. The power of silence is the lack of distraction. No noise, or worse still content like talking or lyrics, is competing for your attention. Silence creates the optimal environment for you to “hear” your own thinking.

This matters because of the volume of poorer quality “shallow work” (to borrow Cal Newport’s typology) that ends up being done. In an environment of constant distraction, people adapt to respond quickly to triggers and frequently switch between short periods on any task. Much research has proven the destructive power of this “context switching“. It prolongs the time needed to complete tasks and reduces the quality of the work that is done. Silence can avoid this and improve the quality.

The power of calm and developing those concentration muscles

Leadership coaching legend, Nancy Kline, in her many excellent books, helped champion & teach the power of silence and “holding the space” when coaching. Her method teaches coaches how to say very little. Using a few incisive questions they can then remain silent for most of a session whilst a client thinks out loud. Any experienced coach who has enabled such a “thinking environment” can attest to the power of such a safe space. Clients often discover their thinking about a situation as if for the first time. Many will later testify that they have never experienced such a spacious calm environment before.

Beyond a coaching context, I believe we can all benefit from the calming power of silence. For those who take seriously their spiritual development, you may already benefit from morning meditation or quiet time. That same slower pace to experience the divine (like the beauty of a traditional mass) can aid your experience of discovering your own thinking, ideas or concerns your subconscious needs to raise.

Building on the power of calm quiet places to think unhurriedly (which ironically can often help you get to an answer quicker), is the concept of “deep work”. In his seminal book on this subject, Dr Cal Newport makes a well-researched case for the need to protect time for deeper work requiring full concentration. This takes time and requires the development of your atrophied concentration muscles (one reason why Cal encourages you to embrace boredom). Much of his wisdom has been shared widely, so I just want to reiterate that an ideal environment for deep work is silence (given the need to remove distractions).

How to improve your productivity with greater use of silence

If you are persuaded by my argument for greater times of silence during your working day, how can you get started? Well, it will take time and be kind to yourself on the journey. That’s my first advice. Like Cal’s advice about gradually developing your concentration muscles with increasing duration of focused thinking, progress will be incremental. Start small. Try 5 minutes of silence. Turn off the music & set the “Do Not Disturb” focus mode on your devices.

For your first experiences, try a time when you need to focus on an activity. Something like writing, coding, calculations or creating a presentation. Warn others not to disturb you. Go into your home office and practice doing such work, in total silence, for gradually increasing durations. Once you have experienced the power of the greater focus this provides, try more reading & then just thinking. It is a wonderful thing when you first experience being able to select a problem to think through and then stand or walk in total silence whilst you work through it in your head. There is a bounce in your step when you have that eureka moment or at least a clear next step.

Resources to help you build a Quiet Workplace

What about others? What about creating a better thinking environment for your team? Well, this is a personal choice, rather than something to force on others. That said, background music and open-plan offices aren’t a neutral option either. They force noise and distraction on knowledge workers whether they want it or not.

So, I was pleased to see the campaign that is being pushed by Joe McCormack. The author of excellent books “Brief” and “Noise” and podcast host has created “The Quiet Workplace”. It is a site to encourage greater use of silence at work. You can find many helpful resources there and I recommend you take a tour and at least watch their video on the first page:

The Quiet Workplace

The Quiet Workplace™ is changing the conversation about the role of silence in a talkative, noisy world. Concentration is critical and more valuable than collaboration. Thinking precedes talking and doing. Whether it is at the office, at home, or on the road, we need quiet wherever we go.

“A lot more human, much more humane…”