The Effects of Physical Environment on Communication in the Workplace

People tend to communicate to those across the table rather than those adjacent.

People tend to communicate to those across the table rather than those adjacent.

Unless you’re clairvoyant, you rely on your physical senses to take in information when you communicate, and so do your clients and colleagues. To communicate successfully, you and your interlocutors must be able to see and hear each other. The physical environment around you can either make that task easier or downright difficult.

Lighting

If you’ve ever tried to listen to the news on the television from a position where you can’t see the screen, you instinctively know that seeing a speaker contributes to understanding him. Even people who have perfect hearing rely on lip reading to some degree, according to experts at the information website Hearing Loss Web. Seeing the speaker also allows you to take in nonverbal cues like body language and gestures. For optimal communication, lighting should be on the speaker and should make her face clearly visible. It should never shine toward the audience because it blinds them.

Seating

Seating around a conference table, of course, reflects rank and authority -- the big wigs usually sit at the ends -- but it also affects who talks to whom. You might expect that people would tend to speak to those closest to them, but not so. More communication happens between people facing each other across the table, a phenomenon known as the Steinzor Effect, because they each other more easily and visual contact helps communication. As for the big boss sitting at the head of the table, more communication will be directed towards him than anyone else at the table. Everyone knows that he’s in charge of the meeting.

Hard versus Soft Surfaces

There is a reason why movie theaters and concert halls have cushy seats and big, heavy curtains. It’s not just about opulence and elegance, it’s about sound absorption. Hard surfaces, such as glass, metal and wood, tend to reflect sound and cause an echo effect that makes it hard to distinguish the original sound from the repeats. Sound-absorbing materials, such a carpeting, textured wall paper and seat padding, dull these echoes and make is easier for everyone to hear.

Background Noise Levels

Background noise interferes with communication in two ways. First, it can be a distraction, especially if it’s something that arouses curiosity, like an unidentified construction noise that makes you wonder, "What are they doing in there?” or a juicy conversation between other people that you can overhear. Secondly, hearing becomes increasingly difficult as ambient noise levels increase; in other words, you simply can’t hear your interlocutor above the din.

 

About the Author

A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.

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