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.
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.
You’ll want to walk over to their desk and say something like, “You know, I have never been able to concentrate unless it’s totally silent. And I know that’s unrealistic … but can I ask you, for the next couple hours, while I’m working on this project, would you keep it down for me? I’d really appreciate it.”
Ok. So what do you do the next day?
Here at Silencity we’d suggest punting to HR or someone higher in the food chain, especially if you don’t know the person who is making your work life hell. You’re not a psychologist (unless you are), and trying to get your work done in less than optimal surroundings is enough of a burden. If your employer puts you in a situation where confronting a noisy co-worker is inevitable, then surely your employer must have designed mechanisms for dealing with the problem. So let the HR manager or your boss figure out how to quiet your noisy work neighbor. That’s why they’re there.
will spend eternity in his or her own special ring in hell. Whatever the initial motivation for the open floor plan–we recall it was to encourage “collaboration,” which must have been the word du jour at the time–many who followed this “innovation” only did so to reap cost savings. That open floor plans are and were unpopular with the worker bees was dismissed without serious consideration as finance departments and underperforming CEOs gleefully counted pennies (that would soon find their way to their bonus checks).
Sadly, this short-sighted and short-term attempt to shore up shaky financial reports is causing some very real problems. As Amy X. Wang, Quartz, notes, “[s]tudies have found that lack of sound privacy is the biggest drain on employee morale, and that workers lose as much as 86 minutes a day to distractions.” In fact, in the last year a flurry of articles have come out that acknowledge the very real costs of open plan offices. So what will our corporate overlords do? Will they call in the designers and reconfigure the office space? Don’t hold your breath. They will more likely send Wang’s article, “The complete guide to noise-canceling in open offices and other hectic spaces,” to the underlings and go back to surfing the web looking for their next unnecessary purchase.
As for Wang’s advice? The usual: invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, download white noise apps, get a plant, go for a walk. Saved you a click.
Silence. Olga Khazan, writing for The Atlantic, wonders whether wearing headphones and listening to music to avoid the noise in an open plan office is “just replacing one distracting noise with another.” And her research, unsurprisingly, leads her to the inescapable conclusion that music interferes with concentration. Khazan notes that the more engaging the music is, the worst it is for concentration, adding that “[m]usic with lyrics is dreadful for verbal tasks.”
So the next time your boss tells you to don a pair of headphones to drown out the noise of your fellow open plan toilers, send him or her the link to Ms. Khazan’s article along with a request for an office.
The (VERY) high cost of noise. Acoustic Bulletin writes about a study published last June by the French Agency Against Noise (Conseil National du Bruit) and the French Environment Agency (ADEME), where the two agencies tried to estimate the total cost of noise pollution in France. In the end, they determined that the cost was 57.2 billion euros in social costs. Yes, that billion. So what was included in this impressive figure? The study focused on six categories of noise:
Impact of traffic noise on health
Indirect costs of traffic noise (for example, on real estate)
Workplace accidents and hearing loss caused by occupational noise
Distraction in the workplace and productivity loss
Impact of noise in educational premises
Impact of neighbourhood noise
At 18 billion euros, the study shows that the cost of open plan offices is very dear.
Which makes us pause and wonder about the cost of noise pollution is in the United States, which has a population about five times larger than France but no Agency Against Noise.
The best ways to cope with a noisy office. Rachel Becker, writing for The Verge, is wisely concerned about finding a good option to block distracting noise at work that won’t put her hearing at risk. Becker notes that “[h]earing loss typically occurs as people age” and that it is irreversible, but what she is concerned about is the World Health Organization’s statement that “more than 1.1 billion young adults are also at risk” of hearing loss because approximately “half of [all] people ages 12 to 35 in middle-to-high income countries are exposing themselves to unsafe levels of noise on their devices.” That is, younger people are engaging in activities that almost guarantee they will suffer hearing loss as they age, something Becker wants to avoid.
Sadly, her review of options doesn’t reveal a perfect answer. But her article is important because she is young and aware that she may be able to avoid hearing loss entirely by taking steps to protect her hearing today. She’s right, after all, about hearing loss being irreversible, and the truth is that no one knows when, or if, a cure will be found. Since noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable, Becker is choosing the wiser route: avoid exposing your ears to damaging sound today to preserve your hearing tomorrow.