Sound News: More damaging evidence on open plan offices

November 16th, 2011
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Tests carried out for a recent UK TV programme called The Secret Life Of Buildings have produced further evidence that open plan layouts create massive distraction, damaging productivity.

The Channel 4 programme’s presenter, architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff, wore a cap that measured his brainwaves while trying to work in an open plan office. The scanner revealed intense bursts of distraction. Dr Jack Lewis, the neuroscientist who conducted the test, said: “Open plan offices were designed with the idea that people can move around and interact freely to promote creative thinking and better problem solving, but it doesn’t work like that. If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on. Even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions.”

This is about noise, even though the programme doesn’t make that distinction, and it backs up the finding quoted by Julian Treasure in his TED talk The four effects of sound: research conducted in 1998* showed that open plan office noise reduces the productivity of knowledge workers (people trying to manipulate words or numbers in their brains, for example to write a report or plan) by a staggering 66%! Julian often calls in his talks for architects and interior designers to create quiet working space in every office layout in order to regain this lost productivity; failing that, he advises workers to wear headphones and listen to birdsong, surf or rainfall to mask the distracting noise.

Further evidence comes from innovative office environment research outfit Leesman. Their comprehensive research on the effects of offices on productivity, wellbeing and satisfaction also shows that noise is a massive problem in modern offices. Of the 31 aspects of the office environment that Leesman measure, noise levels are rated as the 10th most important factor by the 5,000-plus respondents, but rank 22nd out of 31 in satisfaction. And right at the the bottom of all 31 in satisfaction ranking is… quiet rooms, with an overwhelming 74% of respondents dissatisfied about the availability of quiet working space.

Open plan has its place, but forcing people to work in such environments all day regardless of their task profile and the effect of noise on them is costing business billions in lost productivity, not to mention the immense but currently unmeasured cost for employees and society of lost health and wellbeing through stress, fatigue, restricted neural development and impaired sociability.

It’s time to take a new look at office space!

 

* Banbury, S. and Berry, D. C. (1998), Disruption of office-related tasks by speech and office noise. British Journal of Psychology, 89: 499–517. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1998.tb02699.x

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