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.”
Sadly, not everyone has that option. If you are forced to work in an open office and are finding it hard to concetrate on your work, Fast Company has some suggestions on how to make the most of a bad situation.
David Sykes, vice chair of The Quiet Coalition, gives us a solution in his post about office noise and how to fix it. He writes about being part of a group that worked “with the largest provider of workplaces for office workers in America, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).” Sykes states:
GSA houses over 1,000,000 federal office workers in 2,200 communities across the nation, and they survey those office workers regularly about their working conditions. Consequently, if office workers are miserable and distracted, GSA knows about it. Based on over 20,000 survey responses, they learned that noise and lack of privacy were office workers’ biggest complaints.
Importantly, the GSA did something about it. Namely, it commissioned “Sound Matters,” a guide that helps to address the “open landscape dilemma.” Sykes adds that Harvard’s School of Public Health has started a research program called “Buildingomics” to understand the impact of “Indoor Environmental Quality” on office workers’ health and performance.
To learn how these resources can help you address workplace noise and distraction, click the first link for the full post.
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!
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.
Look no further: Introducing the new NIOSH Sound Level Meter App. Yes, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has just released a free sound level meter app for IOS (Apple) devices. Recognizing that “most of the apps on the market are oriented at the casual user and lack the accuracy and functionality necessary to conduct occupational noise measurements, NIOSH hearing loss researchers collaborated with an app developer, EA LAB, to create an iOS based sound level meter app that measures and characterizes occupational noise exposure similar to professional instruments.”
NIOSH has developed this app so that “workers around the world [can] collect and share workplace (or task-based) noise exposure data using their smartphones.” And once the data has been collected, “[s]cientists and occupational safety and health professionals could rely on such shared data to build job exposure databases and promote better hearing health and prevention efforts.”
NIOSH is making the app available to anyone who would like to download it. Click here to learn more about the app and for the link to download it at the App Store. NIOSH is looking for any and all feedback about the app and asks that you help them spread the word about this new tool for protecting workers’ hearing.
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.
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.
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.