Workplace noise

Death of the open plan office?

Photo credit: Peter Bennets licensed under CC BY 3.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

If this pair of NPR articles are correct, the pandemic will cause the death of the open plan office. Now there’s reason to celebrate. Goodbye noisy co0workers and endless distraction!

What the articles suggest is the shift to working from home is going to be permanent for many former office workers. And it appears they are happy about it despite the obvious problems, like kids, pets, and so on.

It’s no secret that office workers have watched with horror as their workspace has steadily diminished over several decades so that the most fashionable, cutting edge offices, like those sported by Google and Facebook, now feature no closed offices at all–except for the C-Suite of course. Instead, there are row upon row of tables, often on casters, on concrete floors, just like factories. Even offices with cubicles have seen those cubicles diminish in size and the barriers between them evaporate.

So is working from home a perfect solution for everyone? Well, no. But if offices can’t bring back more than 50% of their staffs at any one time, that means that many
office workers can ditch the commute at least half of the time and work in their pjs (from the waist down, at most, if you do Zoom calls).

Get used to it. The future of office work has come home!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The future of work is not in noisy offices, NY Times survey says

Photo credit: Rum Bucolic Ape licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The future of work is not in cacophonous offices, a New York Times survey says. Pandemic-related working from home has accelerated a pivotal, even historic, change: people do not want to go back to their old noisy, politically-charged, distracting, disease-spreading offices. Many–60% according to the New York Times survey–say they’d rather continue to work from home as much as possible.

Could this be the next big driver of “knowledge-worker productivity,” i.e., no commuting, no irrelevant distractions, no pointless meetings in airless conference rooms
with management bringing in the boxes of donuts as a concession? If management buys into this change, hooray!

The whole open plan office fad has really been driven by two things: bean-counters trying to reduce the fixed costs of providing workspace for knowledge workers, while simultaneously satisfying the perceived need by managers enjoy seeing and “counting heads” of everyone under their control by simply looking across the open office floor. There’s been plenty of talk for decades about the advantages of “teaming,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “cooperation,” and “camaraderie.”

But the bottom line has really been about…the bottom line. Open plan offices save money by spending less on both fixed assets (buildings) and peoples’ needs for space where they can really focus and concentrate, and giving them instead a “hotel-style” chair amidst many others at picnic-style tables and shared kitchens with fully stocked refrigerators so they never need to leave.

Things are changing! Now what will corporations do with all of that empty office space?

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

6 in 10 workers complain about workplace distraction

Photo credit: Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

And what are the biggest culprits?  No surprise: noisy talkers, loud recreation, and open concept offices.

The article linked above references a study that was conducted in Canada, but there’s no reason to suspect that the experience of U.S. workers is any different.  In the end, any savings in real estate expense must be outweighed by lost productivity due to noisy, distracting environments.

But is the productivity loss measureable? If yes, is it significant?

Yes and yes. According to a survey by coworking company iQ Offices, fighting distractions leads to “up to two hours per day of lost productivity.”

Two hours per day per employee.  It adds up.

 

The cost of noise disruptions

Photo credit: Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Katherine Martinko, Treehugger, writes about how “blocking out the noise of the world” can make us more productive and creative.

Do you remember the Microsoft study on productivity and the cost of noise disruptions? I certainly do. Microsoft and several other big tech companies convened a meeting several years ago to discuss how to measure the productivity of knowledge workers. All the experts were there, led by some people from MIT.

I remember because they awarded my partner and me a contract to do further research (our original work had been for Apple Computer) on this subject and we presented it at a Human Factors and Ergonomics Society conference later.

Here’s the point in a single quote from the above article:

After being interrupted, it takes about 25 minutes to get back to the task you were working on, according to a Microsoft study. It can take even longer to get to a ‘flow state,’ alternatively called ‘deep work.’ These terms refer to the concentrated frame of mind you’re in when immersed in a task and time just seems to fly. It’s also when you do your best work.

What more do we need to know? The relentless shift toward open landscape offices has been underway for decades—because it reduces the cost of corporate office space. Basically, take away walls and doors and even cubicles and you can reduce the space-per-person well below 200 sq ft., resulting in huge savings and greater “flexibility.” But in the end, many people now work in essentially raw, unfinished, factory-like spaces with concrete floors, temporary tables, and virtually no privacy—and that, we are told, is supposed to result in what they call “teamwork.”

We’ve written about the bane of open offices before, but the fact that Microsoft weighed in on the issue is significant. We agree with the author of the above piece that it’s important, if not essential, to find and hang onto your own “bliss station”—a place where distractions are removed and you’re at your most productive when you need to be.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The cost of noise disruptions

Photo credit: Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Katherine Martinko, Treehugger, writes about how “blocking out the noise of the world” can make us more productive and creative.

Do you remember the Microsoft study on productivity and the cost of noise disruptions? I certainly do. Microsoft and several other big tech companies convened a meeting several years ago to discuss how to measure the productivity of knowledge workers. All the experts were there, led by some people from MIT.

I remember because they awarded my partner and me a contract to do further research (our original work had been for Apple Computer) on this subject and we presented it at a Human Factors and Ergonomics Society conference later.

Here’s the point in a single quote from the above article:

After being interrupted, it takes about 25 minutes to get back to the task you were working on, according to a Microsoft study. It can take even longer to get to a ‘flow state,’ alternatively called ‘deep work.’ These terms refer to the concentrated frame of mind you’re in when immersed in a task and time just seems to fly. It’s also when you do your best work.

What more do we need to know? The relentless shift toward open landscape offices has been underway for decades—because it reduces the cost of corporate office space. Basically, take away walls and doors and even cubicles and you can reduce the space-per-person well below 200 sq ft., resulting in huge savings and greater “flexibility.” But in the end, many people now work in essentially raw, unfinished, factory-like spaces with concrete floors, temporary tables, and virtually no privacy—and that, we are told, is supposed to result in what they call “teamwork.”

We’ve written about the bane of open offices before, but the fact that Microsoft weighed in on the issue is significant. We agree with the author of the above piece that it’s important, if not essential, to find and hang onto your own “bliss station”—a place where distractions are removed and you’re at your most productive when you need to be.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Healthcare Acoustics Project (HAP, a division of Quiet Communities Inc.), American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association and the American Institute of Architects. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA publication “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Open plan offices, what are they good for?

Photo credit: K2 Space licensed under CC BY 2.0

Absolutely nothing. And so the collaboration lie falls, as research by two Harvard student researchers shows that “although companies are increasingly calling for barriers in the workplace to be removed, staff are less likely to speak to fellow employees when they can constantly see them.”

Sound waves might damage soldiers’ brains

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This NPR report discusses brain damage from concussive blasts when shoulder-fired rockets are launched. This isn’t surprising. An animal study reported structural, genetic, and biochemical changes in rat brains when they were exposed to loud noise.

Most civilians aren’t exposed to blast injuries, but we are exposed to lots of noise.

The Marines discussed in this study didn’t have a choice about noise exposure.

We do.

Remember: If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Indoor cycling classes are bad for your ears

Photo credit: jalexartis licensed under CC by 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in Vox documents that sound levels in many indoor spinning or cycling classes exceed safe limits to prevent hearing loss. This is an occupational safety and health issues for the instructors, who have many more hours of exposure than those who exercise, but the background music is loud enough to endanger the hearing of those just exercising for an hour or two each week.

One wonders why the state and federal occupational safety and health inspectors haven’t taken action. Maybe this report will spur an inquiry.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

How to deal with distracting conversations in an open plan office

Applying “local acoustic treatment” in open plan offices, says the Acoustical Society of America, “may be able to provide relief in the future.”  What is “local acoustic treatment?” Science Daily reports:

To make these environments less noisy, while still providing acoustic support for speaking and listening, researchers are creating small “acoustic islands” using high-back chairs and retroreflective ceilings to direct sound to help you hear your own conversations — not others’ — better.

Or we could look back–when life was quieter–and embrace these things called “offices.”  One hopes that eventually the cost of mitigating the noise in open plan offices makes them so untenable that reason prevails and people can have a small quiet space to get their work done.