The Hellish Open Office Environment and What To Do About It
If the open office workspace wasn't devised by Satan himself, Old Gooseberry must be kicking his shins with his cloven hooves for not having done so first.
For many years now, companies have been busily cramming employees next to each other with no intervening walls. Even the much-mocked cubicle, with its visual and acoustical barriers, offered more employee privacy than the pitiless plains of the soulless open office.
Introduced in 1950s Germany, the infernal concept was well-intentioned: Breaking down barriers to communication would unlock the creativity of employees. New ideas would emerge, and by placing employees closer together, office space and hence expense could be reduced. More recently, companies like Google have championed the concept.
But a number of studies have found that while companies may save money, open office designs don't always increase productivity. They may actually decrease it. For more about these studies, go here, here and here.
A recent study from the Acoustical Society of America gives insight into just why open offices are counter-productive.
The study found that meaningful, productive conversations overheard by employees not involved in the conversations decreases productivity by those employees. These meaningful conversations not only distract their colleagues from their own work, they're annoying.
Moreover, this productivity-killing effect of meaningful conversations is greater than that of random noise, which the brain can more easily filter out.
Open-office arrangements are supposed to increase productivity by making it easier for employees to talk with one another on common projects. In reality, employees are often working on unrelated projects or need to concentrate on a solo task. For those sitting within earshot of the office foghorns, it's even more painful.
But remember, it's not entirely the fault of the office mate with the voice of an air raid siren; the office is just poorly designed.
"Surrounding conversations often disturb the business operations conducted in such open offices," the Acoustical Society of America study concluded. "Because it is difficult to soundproof an open office, a way to mask meaningful speech with some other sound would be of great benefit for achieving a comfortable sound environment.
Bottom line: The open-office environment pits employees against each other. A productive conversation one employee is having can demoralize and reduce the productivity of those unfortunate enough to be seated nearby.
The study tested the cognitive disruption of noise and meaningful conversation using a test based on the "odd-ball" paradigm, used to evaluate the ability to selectively focus attention and extract pertinent information.
"In the odd-ball paradigm, subjects detect and count rare target events embedded in a series of repetitive events," the study stated. To complete the odd-ball task it is necessary to regulate attention to a stimulus.
In an auditory odd-ball task, subjects counted the number of times the infrequent sound occurred, while either meaningful or meaningless sounds were also being played. In a visual version, subjects looked at pictures flashing on a computer monitor, while either meaningless or meaningful sounds were played through headphones.
At the end of the trials, subjects also rated their level of annoyance at each kind of sound.
The brain waves of subjects were measured throughout the trials to detect what are called "event-related potentials," generated in response to specific events.
"These results demonstrated that the subjective experience of annoyance in response to noise increased due to the meaningfulness of the noise," the study stated.
What To Do About It
"The results revealed that whether the noise is meaningless or meaningful had a strong influence not only on the selective attention to auditory stimuli in cognitive tasks, but also the subjective experience of annoyance."
The take-home lesson, the study said, is that in environments where cognition is important, such as offices or schools, the acoustical environment should be engineered with respect not only to reducing employee exposure to noise, but to meaningful but unwanted sounds.
A heavenly sentiment, indeed.
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