Tag Archive: open plan offices

Open offices spread noise and COVID-19, too

Photo credit: fauxels from Pexels

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

Open plan offices have been fashionable amongst corporate leaders for decades. Why? Not because people like working there; not because people are more productive in them. The real reason executives love open offices is because they’re cheap and changeable at a moment’s notice.

Seriously. Was anyone really fooled by the fashionable designer chairs and by managers’ enthusiastic talk about “teamwork” and “collaboration”? But now there’s the added problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 among people working closely together in those very spaces.

I did some work, including some research, for the U.S. General Services Administration a few years ago on the long-ignored noise problem in open offices. That helped convince office planners that many people really DO NOT LIKE working in open offices—indeed they’re LESS productive there. But it took the GSA–the nation’s largest provider of office workspaces for civilians–to convince the corporate world that the noise/distraction problem is really serious and happy talk from senior leaders doesn’t make office workers more productive.

Now this year—in just the last couple of months—we’ve all become aware of the long-ignored problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 in offices, classrooms, clubs, restaurants, etc.

So if you see/hear someone talking loudly across the room at your open office, keep in mind that they’re not just annoying you, they’re spreading germs too.

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.

Open plan offices: Good or Bad? Harvard Business Review weighs in.

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:

  1. “Sick-building-syndrome” became a serious, costly issue blamed on chemicals in carpets and paints, inoperable windows, and poor air circulation;
  2. Corporate leaders decided they had too much overhead (hint: expensive trophy headquarters and high end real estate); and
  3. 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 mainstream media, so maybe the boss is already listening?

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

New research shows reason why it’s easier to work in a coffee shop than in an open office

Startup Stock Photos

Photo Credit: Startup Stock Photos

And the short answer is that conversation and music is more distracting than meaningless noise.  Oliver Staley, writing for Quartz, reports on a study by Takahiro Tamesue, a sound engineer at the University of Yamaguchi, in which research subjects were asked to complete “tasks on computers, like counting the number of times an image flashed, while listening to both unintelligible noise and human speech.”  Tamesue concluded that “[t]he more meaningful noises, like conversations, were the most annoying, and proved to be the most distracting.”  That is, “meaningful noise” leads to “a greater decline in work performance.”

Can someone remind us again why open plan offices are so super awesome?

Thanks to Charles Shamoon for the link.