Open concept offices and noise levels

Now and then I come across offices that are open concept, i.e. there are no cubicles.  These companies have usually chosen open concept offices to encourage teamwork and also for aesthetics (let’s face it – open office environments look great!).  I always appreciate how much more light comes in from the windows and how good the office looks – but then I think of ergonomics. I notice that teamwork seems to be only an occasional occurrence and more commonly, people work at their computers on their own.  When people do talk to their teammates, the other employees nearby tend to start looking annoyed.  When I ask employees whether there is a noise problem in their office, usually people will say that the open concept bothered them at first because it was distracting, but that they got used to it.  Other people will say that they have never gotten used to it and have to wear earphones to block out the noise.  I had not anyone say that they like it better than cubicles.  But this is only my informal survey – what does scientific research show?  In “An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering” (Wickens, Lee, Liu, Becker), it is documented that noise reduces the quality of auditory input and motor output.  So in other words, when it’s noisy, the quality of the information your brain brings in from hearing is not as good and subsequently any action that you take will not be as good either.  In “Fitting the Task to the Human” (Kroemer, Grandjean) it is concluded that “Noise often interferes with complex mental activities, as well as certain kinds of performance that make heavy demands on skill and on the interpretation of information.”  It was also found that office workers described human conversation as the most distracting noise.  Kroemer and Grandjean surmised that the “conversations of other people may be distracting not so much through their sheer loudness as through their information content”.  However, this was a subjective survey and there was no research documented.

All and all though, people do find noise distracting.  When performing information intensive work and complex tasks, it is usually best to have a quiet place to think.  Open concept offices are great for teamwork and fostering creativity, but there should be “quiet” areas for people to work when their tasks are demanding.  Ideally employees would be given a choice as to whether they want to work in the teamwork area or the quiet area because everyone works better in different environments.  If you are in an open office area with no option for quiet, noise cancelling earphones or even earmuffs may be a good option.


How do I know if I’m getting injured?

More often than not, by the time I do an ergonomic evaluation, many people have quite extensive injuries.  To avoid injuries, it is better to have an ergonomic evaluation done sooner rather than later.  It is helpful to know the path of injury and when you should take action:

1.     Blood flow decreases – This is a symptom that starts before you are aware you are getting injured.  Blood flow starts to be restricted in the area that is being injured.  For example, with a keyboard that is too high, blood flow starts to be restricted in the neck and shoulder area from hunching.  Or for a person who uses the mouse a lot, blood flow will start to restrict in the hand, wrist and forearm.  Ideally an ergonomic evaluation would have been done before this point to avoid the path of injury completely.

2.     Pain or discomfort – Based on the examples above, you may now start to feel some discomfort in your neck and shoulders or your hand, wrist or forearm.  Some discomfort may be tolerable, but pain is not a good sign.  When pain occurs, many people will try and work through it.  They may feel pain at work, but with rest after work and sleep, the pain goes away.  But eventually, if circumstances don’t change, the pain will become constant.  And then pain will become quite intolerable.  You should not wait beyond the first signs of pain to have an ergonomic evaluation.  It is better to rid the workstation of ergonomic risk factors so you can work efficiently and without pain.  It does not help anyone to try and “work through it” because it will affect your productivity and set you up for serious injury.

3.     Swelling and/or tenderness – In the example of the person who mouses a lot; the hand, wrist and/or forearm may now start to feel quite tender to the touch and there may be some swelling.  Swelling indicates an injury.

4.     Reduced range of motion and/or stiffness – The fingers and wrist may now become stiff due to the swelling.  If not treated, the swelling will restrict full movement in the hands and wrist.

5.     Numbness and/or tingling – The fingers and wrist may now become numb or a tingling “pins and needles” sensation may be felt.  This is an indication that the nerves are being compressed or squeezed.  It is important not to ignore an injury where numbness or tingling is felt, because nerves take a long time to heal and injury to them should be avoided at all costs.

6.     Functional limitations – The fingers and wrist may now not be able to move or move well.  The fingers may have reduced sensation due to nerve damage. It is likely that time off work will be needed if work cannot be performed.

To avoid time off work combined with pain and discomfort, listen to the signals your body is giving you.  Discomfort, and especially pain, are not things that should be ignored.  Taking quick action to nip injuries in the bud will help you avoid pain, keep you focussed on work, and keep your body functioning well.