According to a new body of research, the distractions caused by cubicle offices can mean a 5-10% decline in employees’ ability to read, write, and carry out other tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory.
Concurrent studies run by Finland's Institute of Occupational Health and the University of California, Berkeley found that in an office environment, speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is processed so rapidly by the brain. Over the last 10 years, the study out of Berkeley surveyed some 65,000 people in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, and found that a lack of “speech privacy,” was the number one complaint in offices everywhere. “Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory,” Valtteri Hongisto, an acoustician from the Finnish study said.
While it doesn’t take a survey of thousands to determine that workers don’t appreciate noisy co-workers, the sheer percentage of productivity which is lost to workers losing concentration has made some HR professionals take notice. “The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem,” John Goins from Berkeley’s Centre for the Built Environment said.
Problems solved with a whoosh
Poor acoustics in open offices have often meant workers can be distracted by conversations and activity happening at the other end of the office – but sound systems playing the right kinds of noises can change all that. Hongisto found that workers were more satisfied and performed better when speech sounds were masked by a background noise.
A variety of companies have capitalised on the problem and now market the installation of sound systems playing so-called ‘pink-noise’ software – a variety of sounds which play a soft whooshing noise over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is in fact specifically designed to match the frequency of the human voice. Sound-masking systems are generally installed three to five metres apart, and usually emanate from either the ceiling or the floor.
The systemsare gaining popularity in Australia, and are especially popular in offices which deal with sensitive information, such as counselling services, and medical and legal practices. The Victorian AIDS Council recently had a noise cancelling system installed, and counselling manager Christine Barca told the Sydney Morning Herald the new system has enhanced privacy, sounds much like a whirring fan, but is virtually unnoticeable once switched on.“You certainly notice it when it's off because it feels quite strange. Then you turn it back on and you realise it's actually very soothing,” Barca said.