Tag Archive: offices

Yet another article about the failure that is the open plan office:

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.

Borzykowski reports:

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.

Yet another gadget to help you deal with workplace noise:

Introducing Orosound Tilde earphones.  So, you may be asking yourself, “what are Orosound Tilde earphones and why do I care?”  Well, the Tilde earphones are “designed to control distracting ambient noise levels, help you focus on the sounds you want, and connect via Bluetooth to phones and wireless audio devices.”  And that means what?  Essentially, Tilde earphones are portable noise cancellation devices that allow wearers to adjust the level of ambient noise immediately around themselves, with attached earbuds through which the wearer can listen to music or take phone calls.

The device is “designed specifically to help workers ‘listen to the sounds that matter and tune out the rest.’”  As the promotional literature explains, “84 percent of people complain about workplace noise levels and 80 percent say ‘they struggle to concentrate because of background noise.’”  That is, Tilde’s reason for being is to address growing worker displeasure over distracting noise that intereferes with them doing their work–a situation that has been exacerbated, no doubt, by the seemingly universal adoption of open plan work spaces.  If the earphones work as described, Tilde should be a hit.  Certainly the developers are well on their way to start making and selling the first run, as they are on the mark to satisfy their Kickstarter fundraising goal.

If only one could have a Kickstarter campaign for a workplace design with walls and ceilings and doors and no need for personal noise cancellation earphones.

Architecture and sound

In Dear Architects: Sound Matters, Michael Kimmelman has written a fascinating article on sound as a component of architecture.  The article uses multimedia elements that allow the reader to hear the images, which makes the piece all the more powerful.  Kimmelman believes that sound is an element that adds texture to a space, for example the ambient noise in Grand Central which “rises upward and outward, toward the hall’s immense ceiling, embodying the impression of the terminal as a soaring gateway to a great metropolis, promising adventure.”   He also acknowledges how noisy cities have become, noting that:

During the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities. Today it is sound. Streets, public spaces, bars, offices, even apartments and private houses can be painfully noisy, grim and enervating.

It is the failure to consider sound when designing spaces, particularly public spaces, that allows sound to become overwhelming, to become noise.  This failure of design can be heard in almost every new “it” restaurant (and the wannabes) where the only consideration appears to be the space’s visual impact.  This is disconcerting because “[a]coustics can act in deep, visceral ways, not unlike music (think of the sound of an empty house).”   And there is no respite from the sounds of the city when your attempt to escape the crowded and noisy streets leads you to a crowded and noisy restaurant, bar, or enclosed public space.

One hopes that architects and designers consider how the design of a space and the materials used allow the people who will use the space to appreciate the sound of their footsteps as they cross the floor or, as Kimmelman observed, the reassuring “heavy clunk” of a solid wood door over a hollow one.  He adds that “we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel.”  No argument here.  It is the failure to consider the affect of competing, discordant, and uncomfortably loud sounds that has made city living more difficult over the last few decades.  So let’s hope that architects and designers consider how unnerving and uncomfortable spaces become when they are designed only for their visual impact and without a thought towards how they sound.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.