Library Rules or All-day Music? Experts Debate the Ideal Office Environment for Hybrid Work


Before people used to come into work because they had to. Now, for the most part, they come in because the office offers them something they can’t get at home. But what exactly is that something? Is it the bustle and warmth of in-person human connection? A physical space for brainstorming? An escape hatch from the distractions of family life? 

If two new articles on the ideal office environment for hybrid work are anything to go by, different organizations are coming up with very different answers to these questions. That suggests entrepreneurs and other business leaders need to carefully think through how they design their post-pandemic office environment if they want to lure back reluctant employees

Coffee shop or monk’s cell? 

The first of the pair of Quartz articles presents the post-pandemic office as a site of connection and liveliness. Much like some people prefer to work in a coffee shop for its ambient “buzz,” many workers are opting to come in to work these days to escape the quiet and solitude of the work-from-home lifestyle. 

Christian Grosen, chief design officer at the Swiss furniture maker Vitra, explains to writer Anne Quito that “it’s the hum of activity that will eventually draw people out of their work-from-home bubbles.” That’s why Grosen advocates for all-day music in offices. This can “do wonders to make a place seem alive. The tactic already seems to be working at Vitra’s headquarters,” Quito reports. 

Grosen can draw on plenty of research into the productivity and concentration-boosting effects of certain types of background music to bolster his argument, but not everyone agrees that the best model for the post-pandemic office is a bustling cafe. In another Quartz article, Basecamp product designer Jonas Downey praises his office’s hushed, library-like environment. 

Kicking off the article with familiar complaints about the horrors of distracting open plan offices, Downey claims that, at Basecamp, “we have determined that most employees need long, uninterrupted blocks of time to do their best work” and that these blocks of time should be distraction (and noise) free. Basecamp even has a rule urging employees to behave in shared office spaces the same way they would in a library and has declared Thursdays a “no talk” day. 

Clearly, the working model here is of the office not as coffee shop but as refuge. At home you’re interrupted by kids asking for snacks, delivery drivers at the door, or a cat who views your keyboard as its personal warming pad. The office, in contrast, should offer monk-like quiet. 

Which model is best? 

These are two wildly different visions for the office in a world of hybrid work. Which is best? Both camps can cite reputable research to back their approach and both make logical cases. That suggests the answer probably comes down to some mix of company culture, the type of work going on in the office, and the personal preferences of leadership

If mostly people are coming in to do heads down programming or draft documents, then a bumping playlist of sing along tunes is clearly not going to help them get their work done (though soothing wordless background noise of some kind might). If the primary aim of in-office days is bonding and connection, then crank the tunes. Music promotes good vibes and human connection

The biggest lesson for entrepreneurs isn’t that you need to always and forever give your loyalty to one camp or the other. Instead, it’s to be intentional not just about the physical design of your office, but also about its acoustic design. How we feel in a space and what activities it welcomes and discourages is greatly impacted by what we hear (or don’t hear). 

The soundscape of your office should match your goals for getting people to come back in the first place. You know exactly what those goals are, right? 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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