White Noise or Fright Noise? Interpreting the Office Buzz Factor

With today’s open offices, people prefer a steady level of ‘white noise’ to drown out distractions. If it’s too quiet we wonder if the rapture occurred and we missed it.

Sometimes conversation levels rise above the background noise. You know ‘something’s up’. Strong leaders pay attention to the OBF: Office Buzz Factor.

OBF is the level of talk, debate, gossip and argument about the state of the organization. Layoff notices produce high OBF. Watering the plants does not.

Like white noise, there is always some level of OBF. The office grapevine is hard to kill, and anyway, it can be a good source of information. As a leader you want to pay attention to it when it elevates above a given threshold.

0 – Silence: Everyone has left the building

1 – What did you do on the weekend? Have you seen my ferret pictures?

2 – Look at our latest numbers: Sales are down. And Barry has a new stapler – a red one!

3 – What do you think of the new strategy? Exciting, but I wonder what it means for us.

4 – The CEO just fired 3 of our managers. Who do you think is next?

OBF rises according to the personal relevance of what’s going on. Social buzz and gossip tend to be detached. Emotions are triggered as information strikes closer to home. Job impacts (check out my article on how to diagnose these) are interpreted either as threats (fear!) or opportunities (hope, excitement). As we move up the scale, staff ask each other more questions to try and predict what will happen, talking through every possible option and outcome.

The problem is, OBF is inversely related to productivity. The more time and energy people spend trying to figure out what will happen, the less time they spend working. Letting the OBF run out of control can create a major performance problem.

Changing Your Mind

If you have a rising OBF, do some investigation to determine what’s going on. Ask questions. Eat lunch with employees. Tap into your trusted network. Then determine which intervention makes the most sense:

  • Check your assumptions. Are you assuming they know more than they do? Are people missing history or context that you possess?
  • Fill in the gaps. High OBF typically means people need more information. Tell them as much as you can.
  • Focus on what is not changing. Remind people of what they can continue to count on; what remains predictable. This fosters a sense of control.
  • Be honest about what you don’t know. Give them a timeline for delivering answers or providing an update on progress.
  • Repeat as needed.

A high OBF indicates you have a communication problem. Don’t ignore the noise. Address it with answers, vision, and stories so people can dial down the distraction and get back to work.

Thoughtfully yours,

Jeff Skipper

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Jeff Skipper
Jeff Skipper is an expert in accelerating change. Clients such as Shell, Goldman Sachs and The Salvation Army have engaged him to achieve dramatic results during strategic transformation by wrapping complex change in motivating mission. He has been quoted in Fast Company, Forbes and HP’s enterprise.nxt. Jeff holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and is a Certified Change Management Professional.