A new study highlights the biggest problem with open offices: noise. Here’s how to design around it.
Everyone has a horror story about a coworker making awful noises. From chewing to coughing and even clipping their fingernails. Well, it turns out that those sounds are driving you crazy because sounds coming from other humans are the most distracting thing you can encounter at work.
According to a new study from workplace design expert Alan Hedge at Cornell, 74% of workers say that noise is a persistent distraction. In fact, sounds — and specifically sounds coming from other people — are the number one distraction in the workplace.
“In general, if it’s coming from another person, it’s much more disturbing than when it’s coming from a machine,” Hedge told NPR, because, as social beings, humans are attuned to man-made sounds. He says overheard conversations, as well as high-pitched and intermittent noises, also draw attention away from tasks at hand.
The open office trend has only made the problem worse. Other studies show that workers are happier, and take less sick days when they can work from enclosed spaces. But there’s a disconnect between management, who think the problems are overblown, and the employees who have to work in the open spaces.
The open office trend took hold because it’s an economical use of space that affords companies the opportunity to lower real estate costs. But noise is rarely taken into account in the design stage. Open ceilings and hard surfaces should be accounted for, perhaps through the use of sound absorbent furniture panels, and barriers between desks should be lower, so employees can speak to each other without shouting over cube walls.
If workers needs aren’t addressed, and spaces aren’t dedicated to both privacy and collaboration, lots of undesired outcomes will start to take place, like employees using conference rooms as offices.
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