Employees can’t concentrate in cube farms

by 05 Jun 2012

Employees can’t concentrate in cube farmsAccording 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.



  • by Bernie Althofer 6/06/2012 10:44:10 AM

    Perhaps Scott Adams was on the ball when he developed Dilbert. However, it does appear that a risk assessment should be conducted if consideration is to be given towards 'cube farms'. Issues such as privacy, confidentiality are often raised, along with work health and safety issues such as bullying and harassment.

    Hot desking seems to be just as popular and whilst there may be an economic reasoning for hot desking and cube farms, there has to be a balance.

  • by Felicity Law 12/06/2012 3:08:53 PM

    Essentially, businesses install cubicles to maximise space and hence, save on costs.
    Sounds like a contradiction though, when they then have to spend money to solve a problem caused by the initial ‘cost effective’ solution.

    Felicity S Law
    Business Operations and Management Specialist
    Felicity's Law

  • by Bernie Althofer 12/06/2012 4:59:37 PM

    Once upon a time, a senior manager negotiated to have 'cube farms' in the belief that it would improve productivity, morale etc. After a few months with increased absenteeism, increased complaints about confidentiality, breaches of privacy, sexual harassment, bullying, and the like, he had to go and plead a case to go back to what it was. Immediate success when the old office was restored - people were happier, complaints went down, productivity went up.

    Cube farms may suit some environments, but at least conduct a risk assessment and consult with those likely to be impacted.

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