CXO

The open office noise problem: How to design around it

A new study from Oxford Economics claims that open office floor plans can hurt employee productivity. Here's how to design the best office for your employees.


The tech industry may want to reconsider its trend toward open office plans. Employees say the ability to focus on work without interruptions is a top priority in the workplace—over perks like free food or onsite daycare, according to a recent study from Oxford Economics and Plantronics.

"Noise and distractions present big challenges in the workplace," said Beau Wilder, vice president of innovation waves and new products at Plantronics. "Noise from an open-plan office is often picked up on calls and can distract those working from other locations."

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But there appears to be a disconnect between manager and worker perspectives on the issue: Nearly two-thirds of executives said employees are equipped to deal with distractions at work, but less than half of employees agreed.

The study surveyed 1,200 global employees and executives. Millennials were more likely than other age groups to say that noise distracts them from their work. They also reported being more annoyed by ambient noise in their offices than other workers did.

SEE: Distracted minds: 3 tips to disconnect from tech and increase productivity

"Very few companies have taken meaningful steps to address the problem—noise is often an afterthought in office construction, and executives overestimate employees' ability to drown it out with the tools available to them," Wilder said. "But when a company takes on the issue, good workplace design can go a really long way toward employee happiness and productivity."

More than half of employees say ambient noise reduces their satisfaction at work, the report stated. "Many feel compelled to solve the problem on their own, blocking out distraction through visits to the breakroom, taking walks outside, or listening to white noise and music on headsets or headphones," Wilder said. "Some of these tools can be effective to a degree, but a lot of these personal solutions can cause distraction or fatigue, and employees walling themselves off from others aren't able to experience the benefits the collaborative space was specifically designed for."

Collaboration vs. concentration

The tech industry has embraced the open space environment more than others, according to Nora Harsha, an advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "It fosters a collaborative work environment, and some of these company cultures do thrive on that, as it facilitates employee interaction and reduces the need for meetings," Harsha said.

However, airborne diseases like the cold and the flu are more easily spread in open offices, Harsha said.

One of the largest drivers of the open office design is the need to maximize space and lower real estate costs, said Lindsay T. Graham, a research specialist at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

"For tech companies shifting towards those environments, it's often related to the perception that open space leads to more collaboration—in some ways, perhaps it does, but there is not a lot of evidence out there showing that its needed for every kind of worker," Graham said.

There are also times when employees are not collaborating, and need a quiet space to really focus, Graham said.

A 2014 study from the Center for the Built Environment found that workers were happier when they were in enclosed offices, and also were less likely to take sick days.

But that research only begins to scratch the surface of the complexities of workplace design, Graham said. There are also likely factors related to personality, the types of work, and other issues that come into account that future research will explore.

Some 74% of employees say they face "many" instances of disturbances and distractions from noise, according to Alan Hedge, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University.

Why does conversational noise impact productivity? "Conversations are meaningful noise, and that makes them much more distracting—so it is intelligibility rather than just the noise level that is distracting," Hedge said.

Designing a better workplace

When designing an office, managers should consider minimizing hard surfaces, avoiding open ceilings in favor of sound absorbent materials, using carpet, and lowering barriers between desks so coworkers can see each other and speak more quietly, Hedge said. They can also allow employees to wear earbuds to create privacy.

Good workplace design considers employee needs, and facilitates productivity, Wilder said. "If companies are not careful, workers may turn conference rooms into de facto offices, which defeats the purpose of both open-plan layouts and shared meeting spaces," he said.

Companies should make a conscious effort to help their employees manage the challenges of noise and open space, by creating designated individual pods and smaller meeting rooms to allow for privacy and quiet during the work day, and providing employees with the flexibility to work remotely, Wilder said. "Designing for today's workplace means building spaces that help employees be as productive as possible and do their best work," he added.

Open office plans can also come into conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to offer a reasonable accommodation for employees with a disability. For example, if an employee has ADHD and is easily distracted in an open environment, a manager might provide noise cancelling headphones to increase their concentration. Or if someone has an allergy to perfume, they may need to enact a "no perfume" policy, Harsha said.

"Listen to employees, and see what the issue is," Harsha said. Even if they do not have a diagnosable disability, some employees might prefer natural lighting over fluorescent, for instance, or a space to take phone calls without disrupting others.

"Managers need to be aware that this isn't for everybody—while it might be the thing that a lot of companies are doing, they really need to take into account their workforce and their culture," Harsha said.

While office preferences may vary from worker to worker, they may also vary for an individual employee across a day or week or month, depending on what kind of work they are doing, Graham said.

"We can't design commercial spaces that are perfect for each individual, but we need to design and allow for employees to have flexibility and the ability to configure that space in a way that is going to help them maximize productivity," Graham said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Employees say the ability to focus on work without interruptions is a top priority in the workplace, even over perks like free food or onsite daycare, according to a recent study from Oxford Economics and Plantronics.
  2. However, many companies now use open-plan offices, which can lead to noise and other employee complaints that hurt productivity and decrease job satisfaction.
  3. Managers can reduce the negative impacts of open office plans by providing private quiet spaces for employees, and allowing remote work, experts said.

Also see

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Image: iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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