Tag Archive: productivity

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.

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.

The Best Music for Productivity?

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.

Thanks to @QuietEdinburgh for the link.

What’s More Distracting Than A Noisy Co-Worker?

All quiet before the storm

All quiet before the storm

Turns Out, Not Much.  Yuki Noguchi reports on co-worker noise for the NPR, presenting a couple of individual accounts of co-workers behaving badly.  As you are no doubt aware, the problem is universal, with “[s]ounds, particularly those made by other humans, rank[ing] as the No. 1 distraction in the workplace.”  As we have reported before, noise in the workplace has been made worse by the misguided “popularity” of open offices.  They are popular with the corporate executives who impose them on an increasingly demoralized workforce, seen as a rational money-saving move because lower real estate costs are easier to quantify than decreased employee morale and productivity.  And worker morale and productivity do suffer, as Noguchi notes that the “University of California’s Center for the Built Environment has a study showing workers are happier when they are in enclosed offices and less likely to take sick days.”

So, what can be done?  “There are solutions,” says workplace design expert Alan Hedge.  So what are those solutions?  Because the “trend toward open offices and hard office furniture makes noise distraction worse,” Hedge suggests that “adding carpet, drapes and upholstery can help.”  He also recommends removing cubicle walls entirely, as they “provide the illusion of sound privacy, but actually make people less aware of the noises they create.”  Or you could try the advice given in this Business Insider article: How to tell a noisy coworker to shut up without making them hate you.  A quick scan reveals the piece should be titled, “Things that sound like solutions but aren’t because no one will ever do this.”

Finally, there is also another option: bring back offices and let people have a quiet space to do their work.  Just a suggestion.

 

 

How Background Noise Can Ruin Productivity

and the Gadgets That Can Help.

Open floor plans may excite the finance department, but their effect on worker productivity–and morale–is less than fabulous.  Spare us the noise cancelling headphones, please, and design quieter places where people can do their work.

Why everyone–except the bean counters and upper management–hates open plan offices:

When All’s Not Quiet On the Office Front, Everyone Suffers.

Click the link to learn the 12 ways that workplace noise affects worker well-being and productivity.  While the executive team, safely ensconced in their offices, may not care about worker well-being, productivity is another thing altogether.

For a bit of background on the use of open-floor plans and some advice on how to make them better, see Open-Plan Offices Are the Worst, Here’s how to make them slightly less terrible.