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.”
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.”
By David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition
When Harvard Business Review (HBR) speaks, people listen, including those who sit in executive suites. A series of articles published in HBR about noise and distractions in open plan offices may be changing some minds. Reductions in productivity attributed to noise and distraction related to open plan designs may finally be getting the attention of corporate leaders.
Over the past several decades, open-plan offices became fashionable. If you didn’t like them, you’d be bucking a trend. Why did this type of office design become a hot topic in the executive suite? Three trends collided:
“Sick-building-syndrome” became a serious, costly issue blamed on chemicals in carpets and paints, inoperable windows, and poor air circulation;
Corporate leaders decided they had too much overhead (hint: expensive trophy headquarters and high end real estate); and
The U.S. Department of Energy established a huge initiative to increase energy efficiency and cut costs.
Suddenly walls, carpets, fancy wood furniture, cubicles and even lightbulbs were dumped. Windows were re-opened. Dramatically branded front offices concealed cavernous, cacophonous, factory-like back offices — flooded with daylight and high levels of ambient noise. The related noise and distractions have been a growing source of complaints from workers ever since.
We wrote about this on February 16 after spending a decade working on the problem with the U.S. General Services Administration and several large corporations. And now HBR keeps writing about noise and open plan offices. So is it possible we may soon see a trend towards office designs that accommodate worker comfort, safety and, even, employee productivity? We believe it may be.
If you are working in an open-space plan or are a senior level executive concerned with employee productivity, this ongoing HBR series could help YOU. This subject has also attracted mainstreammedia, so maybe the boss is already listening?
They’re noisy! Steve Drummond, NPR, looks back at education policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s which gave birth to the “Open Education” model (among other things). Under this model there were “[n]o whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” and often no walls. Wide open spaces prevailed.
Drummond visited one of the few remaining schools built with the open school concept in mind, Benjamin Orr Elementary School. The goal of the open school was to encourage collaboration (does that sound familiar?), but one glaring problem at open schools like Benjamin Orr is the noise. So the teachers there try to adapt by creating walls within the big open space. That’s not a surprise, because as Drummond tells us:
Historians say that’s pretty much why this open school design died out. Bottom line: Too loud. Too distracting. Teachers hated it.
Benjamin Orr Elementary School is going to be torn down and a new school built next door–a new school that will not be open (and will have better heating and cooling, too). But don’t despair. Although the open school concept didn’t live up to its promise, one of the teachers Drummond interviews noted that “open education isn’t so much about the floor plan, but the way teachers work together and work with their students.”
Why Open Plan Offices Are Bad For Us. Bryan Borzykowski, BBC.com, examines the modern office worker’s nemesis, the open plan office. Borzykowski introduces us to Chris Nagele, a tech executive who adopted an open plan space because he thought it would encourage collaboration among his team members. But Nagele soon discovered that he made a huge mistake. Instead of a free exchange of creative ideas, Nagele found that everyone was distracted, productivity suffered, and his employees were unhappy, as was he. And he wasn’t alone.
Professors at the University of Sydney found that nearly 50% of people with a completely open office floorplan, and nearly 60% of people in cubicles with low walls, are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. Only 16% of people in private offices said the same.
Sound privacy means noise. Your neighbor’s phone call is noise to you, and your call is noise to him or her. And in an open office, it’s possible to have lots of neighbors. No surprise then that in the U.S., where about 70% of offices are open concept, there is a growing backlash against them. And there is research that backs up employees’ complaints. Specifically, “that we’re 15% less productive, we have immense trouble concentrating and we’re twice as likely to get sick in open working spaces.” That is, the reason employees hate open plan offices isn’t just a loss of status and exposure to a litany of minor nuisances. Rather, “we can’t multitask and small distractions can cause us to lose focus for upwards of 20 minutes.” That is, we can’t do our work.
In the end, the stated motivation for adopting open plan offices–to encourage collaboration–is a lie. Many companies claim that motivation when the bottom line is that open plan offices are cheaper. But even if encouraging collaboration really is the motivation, Borzykowski tells us that “we don’t collaborate like we think.” Instead, he writes:
[I]t’s well documented that we rarely brainstorm brilliant ideas when we’re just shooting the breeze in a crowd. Instead, as many of us know, we’re more likely to hear about the Christmas gift a colleague is buying for a family member, or problems with your deskmate’s spouse.
So, what to do? The obvious choice is to ditch the open plan office, but that isn’t easy to do after significant funds have been spent on a new space. When the floor plan cannot be changed, some sort of accommodation should be made, particularly for jobs that require focus, like writing or coding. Borzykowski reports that some companies “are experimenting with quiet rooms and closed spaces,” while others place sensors around the workspace to track noise, temperature, and population levels, allowing staff to “log on to an app [to] find the quietest spot in the room.” Or maybe companies should bite the bullet? According to Chris Nagele, leaving the open plan office behind resulted in his employees being happier and more productive.
and Your Health. Belle Cooper has written a very thoughtful piece on the problems with noise at work and play, and the importance of silence in one’s life. On noise she writes:
Two types of everyday noise can be bad for us. One is excessive noise, such as the prolonged loud noise of being near an airport. The other is simply the distraction of general noise around us, such as conversations or interruptions from colleagues in the workplace.
The former may seem worse, but both can be detrimental to our productivity—and sanity.
Cooper lists a litany of horribles caused by exposure to chronic noise from traffic or airports, like high blood pressure, heart problems, and sleeplessness, but she also explores the effects of everyday noise on those of us not exposed to these chronic noise sources. What is the effect on those of us who simply experience what she calls “general daily noise?” She writes:
If you work in an open plan office, you’ll probably find [distraction and interruption] is an even greater problem. Ollie Campbell, CEO of Milanote and part of Navy Design’s multi-disciplinary team, says open plan offices come with their own implicit values. They make team members feel that disruption is acceptable, collaboration is the key priority, and serendipity is worth the interruptions it requires.
* * *
Distractions and interruptions are such a common part of our workdays, we don’t even think of them as excessive noise anymore. It’s often more obvious when we don’t hear the noise of distractions around us at work than when we do.. A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that knowledge workers have focus periods of just eleven minutes on average, in-between interruptions. As Campbell said, “if you need to focus, ‘work’ is pretty much the worst place you could be.”
So what can be done to reclaim some peace, to regain one’s focus and concentration? Cooper suggests that we shut out both excessive/harmful noise as well as “the more general commotion of the modern workplace” so that we can create our best work. And she’s armed with research that shows that silence doesn’t just relax the brain:
One study of mice found that listening to silence for two hours every day prompted the subjects’ brains to grow new cells in the hippocampus, which is related to our brain’s memory abilities. While new cell growth doesn’t always provide health benefits, in this case those new cells did become new, functioning neurons within the mice brains. In other words, silence could make you a little smarter.
Ok, perhaps that reaching a bit, but Cooper shares some anecdotal evidence that silent time helps us make better long-term decisions as well as spur creative thinking. In the end, we can’t cocoon ourselves and block out all noise, but when we have the chance, Cooper suggests that we opt for silence. Sounds good to us!
The Best White Noise Apps & Sites. Lisa Poisso, Techlicious, reviews websites and apps offering pink noise generators for better sleep as well as options to enhance concentration and focus when you are adrift in a sea of noise.
TechRepublic writes about the “new study from Oxford Economics [that] claims that open office floor plans can hurt employee productivity” in a piece titled, “Here’s how to design the best office for your employees.” And once again we are compelled to respond as follows: When will this assault on employee productivity and morale end? Why can’t *they* bring back private work spaces?
It seems clear that nothing will be done until the bean counters can quantify the enormous costs of open plan offices. No doubt part of the problem is that it’s hard to put a dollar figure on employee distraction, frustration, and decreased morale. But one thing is clear, the absolute raft of articles on how much employees hate open plan offices indicates that they are a problem that needs to be solved or redesigned or otherwise dealt with. One day some newly minted management genius will rediscover pre-open plan office design, repackage it slightly, and give it a new name, and after the applause dies down, *they* will follow.
Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, The Boston Globe, writes about the quiet spaces Tufts Health Plan offers to its employees. While quiet spaces may seem like the newest perk du jour startups offer to lure talent, there’s another reason for these amenities:
Watertown-based Tufts is among many companies now offering quiet spaces where employees can step away from their desks for a few minutes and recharge. Such spaces are especially welcome in open offices, where workers sit in close quarters and noise carries easily. The garden and the quiet room at Tufts, which opened in recent years, have been popular with a small, enthusiastic, and growing group of employees. “The more people hear about it, the more they’re willing to try it,” says Lydia Greene, Tufts’s chief human resources officer. “Pretty soon we will need a bigger room.”
Yes, the reason for the quiet room and garden is to compensate for the uncomfortably noisy work space Tufts imposes on its employees. Sadly, the article prints the unsupported assertion that “firms eliminate private offices to foster collaboration,” when it’s not exactly a secret that the business case for open plan offices is simple: They’re cheaper.
When one considers the cost of providing quiet spaces plus the time lost when employees seek out a quiet space in which to decompress, perhaps the new trend will be a return to offices?