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.