Open-Plan Offices and other Problems
With the increasing prevalence of open-plan offices, it’s worth having a look at the evidence of the impact such environments have the on people in them.
The research in this area is relevant not just for the workplace, but also for education environments of all forms, and any other place where people need to concentrate and use their brains.
In summary, the research is unambiguous. Noisy environments:
- increase distraction
- increase stress
- reduce workplace harmony
- reduce functioning memory
- lower job satisfaction, and
- can ultimately negatively impact people’s health.
On top of that, these affects are generally intensified for introverts (because constantly having people around is draining), and for people with a neurological makeup better suited to constantly monitoring their environment (e.g.: ADHD).
On top of that, the evidence supporting positive effects of open-plan offices doesn’t appear to be as prolific as one might hope. Sure, it can be good to be near the people you need to work with, and that appears to work well in short bursts, but open plan offices and other noisy work environments don’t typically happen in short bursts.
All day. Every day. Without pause. Without relief. Always in your face. Always in your ears. Always demanding your attention whether you want it to or not.
On that positive note, on to the evidence.
The key points in the evidence can be best made by letting the publications speak for themselves through their abstracts. So, over to the extracts from abstracts …
Some extracts from abstracts of research papers on noise and distraction in open-plan offices.
- [in open-plan offices] employees face a multitude of problems such as the loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues, over-stimulation and low job satisfaction when working in an open plan work environment.
Managers need to have a better understanding of open plan work environments before embracing such workplace designs. A multidisciplinary approach is recommended when decisions are being made in relation to which type of environment is better suited to the requirements of their employees as this has an impact on workforce productivity and job satisfaction.
Source: “Should health service managers embrace open plan work environments?: A review” (Oommen et al, 2009)
- [when a studied group of professional office workers with private rooms moved to open plan offices] … negative effects of acoustic environment increased significantly, including increased distraction, reduced privacy, increased concentration difficulties and increased use of coping strategies. Self-rated loss of work performance because of noise doubled. Cognitively demanding work and phone conversations were most distracted by noise. The benefits that are often associated with open-plan offices did not appear: cooperation became less pleasant and direct and information flow did not change. … Professional workers’ … work tasks mainly required individual efforts, and interaction between other workers was not of primary concern, although necessary. The results suggest that the open-plan office is not recommended for professional workers.Source: “Effects of acoustic environment on work in private office rooms and open-plan offices – longitudinal study during relocation” (Kaarlela-Tuomaala et al, 2009)
Learning and cognition
Some extracts from abstracts of research papers on noise and distraction's effects on learning and cognition.
- The results [of this study] showed that both road
traffic noise and meaningful irrelevant speech impaired recall of the text.
Retrieval in noise from semantic memory was also impaired. Attention was
impaired by both noise sources, but attention did not mediate the noise effects
on episodic memory.
Source: “The effects of road traffic noise and meaningful irrelevant speech on different memory systems” (Hygge et al, 2003).
- [In an experimental] reading
comprehension task, cued recall and recognition were more impaired by
meaningful irrelevant speech than by road traffic noise. Contrary to
predictions, there was no interaction between noise and age group, indicating
that the obtained noise effects were not related to the capacity to perform the
Source: “Strength of Noise Effects on Memory as a Function of Noise Source and Age” (Boman et al, 2005)
- Merely overhearing a halfalogue [half a phone call conversation] results in decreased performance on cognitive tasks designed to reflect the attentional demands of daily activities. Source: “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech is More Distracting” (Emberson et al, 2010)
Physiological effectsSome extracts from abstracts of research papers on noise and distraction's psychological effects.
- [In noisy environments there is] physiological
evidence of increased stress related to noise sensitivity and noise exposure
Source: “Low frequency noise enhances cortisol among noise sensitive subjects during work performance”, (Persson-Waye et al, 2001)
- Employees [in the study] exhibited
the lowest performance and satisfaction when their jobs were low in complexity,
their screening skills were weak, and they worked in dense areas, areas with
few enclosures, or close to other employees.
Source: “Physical Environments and Employee Reactions: Effects of Stimulus-Screening Skills and Job Complexity” (Oldham et al, 1991)
Different effects for different groupsAn extract from an abstract of a research paper on noise and distraction's effects on specific groups.
- Results partially confirmed
hypotheses that satisfaction and performance would be reduced for employees
with poor stimulus screening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy,
or complex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact to produce
employees’ negative reactions were also partially confirmed. Importantly,
results verify stimulus screening as a significant determinant of employees’
reactions to the open-plan workplace.
Source: “Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices” (Maher & von Hippel, 2005).
Supplementary NotesSome extra useful information. While not robust research, interesting nevertheless.
- Office design isn't necessarily the solution to all problems. https://theconversation.com/heres-why-cool-offices-dont-always-make-for-a-happier-workforce-77361
with speech noise in the modern workplace
to Tune Out Distraction –
Meditation at work
- My coping suggestion: Buy some noise-cancelling headphones! The expensive ones are generally worth it. Even a $500 pair of noise-cancelling headphones will give return on investment within about a year if you assume that each hour of improved concentration gives you one dollar of return, and you use them two hours a day.I bought some cheap ones, they didn't help much, then I bought the best I could find and haven't looked back (I bought Bose QuietComfort 35's - full ear covering with good noise-cancelling software).
The headphones won't stop all sound, and won't stop visual distraction, but they are a great way to help you concentrate in a noisy environment.
- Boman, E; Enmarker, I; Hygge, S (2005) “Strength of Noise Effects on Memory as a Function of Noise Source and Age” Noise Health 2005;7:11-26. URL: http://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2005/7/27/11/31636
- Emberson, L. L.; Lupyan, G.; Goldstein, M. H.; & Spivey, M. J. (2010), “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech is More Distracting.”, Psychological Science. URL: From: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/10/1383.
- Hygge, Staffan; Boman, Eva; Enmarker, Ingela (2003) “The effects of road traffic noise and meaningful irrelevant speech on different memory systems”, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, Volume 44, Issue 1, February 2003, Pages 13–21. URL: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118874240/abstract
- Kaarlela-Tuomaala, A; Helenius, R; Keskinen, E; Hongisto, V (2009) “Effects of acoustic environment on work in private office rooms and open-plan offices – longitudinal study during relocation”, 21 Oct 2009. Published online. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140130903154579.
- Maher, Alena; von Hippel, Courtney (2005) “Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices”. Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 2, June 2005, Pages 219–229. URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494405000356
- Oldham, Greg; Kulik, Carol; Stepina, Lee (1991) “Physical Environments and Employee Reactions: Effects of Stimulus-Screening Skills and Job Complexity”, Academy of Management Journal (ACAD MANAGE), 1st Dec 1991 vol. 34 no. 4 929-938. URL: http://amj.aom.org/content/34/4/929
- Oommen, VG; Knowles, M; Zhao, I (2008) “Should Health Service Managers Embrace Open Plan Work Environments?: A Review”, Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, Volume 3 Issue 2 (2008). URL: https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=424236471220718;res=IELAPA.
- Persson-Waye, Kerstin; Bengtsson, Johanna; Rylander, Ragnar; Hucklebridge, Frank; Evans, Phil; Clow, Angela Clow (2002) “Low frequency noise enhances cortisol among noise sensitive subjects during work performance”, Life Sciences, Volume 70, Issue 7, 4 January 2002, Pages 745-758. URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0024320501014503
While I don't claim to be entirely objective on this topic, I do claim to have evidence to support my position.