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.


2 thoughts on “Open concept offices and noise levels

  1. Interesting viewpoint. I agree that in the interest of creating an open concept environment that is supposed to foster teamwork the actual result is that people are hunched over their phones at their desk so as not to disturb their neighbours or because they don’t wish their conversation to be heard. Similar to an open concept home with wood and stone surfaces. Looks great, but noises will carry eliminating any chance for privacy or quiet thought time.

  2. In 1985 I got a placement with the Ministry of Labour in the personnel office. At the time all the assistants sat in a line next to the “officers” offices. Each officer handled several divisions within the ministry. Around 2:00 p.m. it was “quiet time” as I called it years later when I was a care giver; in this case it was the time when all the children got to wind down in their own space with a favorite toy or book. The officers closed their doors and did not take any calls. This time of day was blissful. I could get so much work done.

    I don’t think it was the introduction of computers that had the biggest impact on employee productivity and commitment. I think it was the introduction of the cubicle.

    Cubicles as opposed to offices with doors, and accompaning communal areas, in my opinion, made offices ugly and inhuman. Plus, there were no more naps for the executive officers; instead we had a lot of cranky people breathing down each other’s necks. People didn’t work late anymore or come in early and they ran out of the building like they were escaping hell.

    The predilection for human beings to model their expectations of others on the worst tendencies possible, without context, namely that people are lazy as a matter of course and not as a result of exhaustion or frustration came to fruition in the years that followed. I think it was a direct result the new design of offices. Employees were increasingly dissatisfied because they had been robbed of the sense of personal connection to their workplace.

    A board separating oneself from another is not a personal space. To truly make a job a thing of excellence is to make it one’s own and we are creatures that mark commitment with personal space.

    For me, working at home works. I need to have a door to close, even if it means I have to work in the quiet of the night or very early in the morning. My office is in my home and thanks to the internet I can reach clients all over the world and commit to working the hours that are the most productive for me.


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