Understanding the Noise in Modern Work Culture

We take an in-depth look at how open-space floor plans are potentially bad for productivity in the work place.

Content by Caty Cambron

The landscape of professional innovation and collaboration has drastically changed in the last decade.

Sure, smart thinking has given way to major societal advances like GPS-enabled ride sharing, digital pay, self-operating vehicles—not to mention the countless social apps meant to engage the human population through mere hand-held devices. But we’re not just talking about the by-products of technology we survive and depend on.

The literal, physical landscape of innovation and collaboration is now part of many, if not most, professional settings you have at some point likely experienced or maybe wanted to be a part of. Sprawling open-floor plans designed to promote teamwork and foster communication. Architecture that echoes cleanliness and conveys minimalism. Ping-pong tables, espresso machines, and the newest tech trends made available by well-meaning employers to ostensibly benefit morale and productivity. But are these things actually working the way companies intended?

This piece focuses on issues in the workplace that we, as modern employees of Big, face everyday. By creating a dialogue for this, both across and in our industry, we hope to connect with colleagues, friends, and consumers about modern challenges and barriers in the workplace. Our goal is to extend the issues raised below through additional pieces of content to ultimately create conversation around unique, realistic perspectives.

Pursuing Start-Up Culture

Simultaneously professional and recreational workplaces have become part of a global shift in cities across the world where traditional work spaces and organizational structures are changing to support an entrepreneurial mindset. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously enlisted renowned architect Frank Gehry, best known for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., to design the largest open-space floor plan in the world. The end product was a single room spanning 10 acres.

In addition to Facebook, we’ve seen Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs, and American Express follow suit—and that’s just Silicon Valley. About 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. It’s clear that companies are adopting this pattern, but why exactly? For some, it’s an ideal way to maximize space while minimizing costs—through cutting down on construction fees while also keeping an eye on employee behavior more easily.

According to Mintel research, attitudes towards employment are changing as people want to find enjoyment and fulfillment in their career. More people now aspire to work for businesses that promote work spaces that reflect their own values, such as flexibility, creativity, and overall positivity and well-being.

Knowing this, it makes sense that companies and businesses would adopt a shift towards a modern work culture in order to attract new talent into the workforce. While these minimalist work spaces have abundantly flittered into news feeds and job descriptions alike, the dialogue about their impact and effect, positive and negative, seem to conflict. Who should you believe? And if you are a leader who is affected by these decisions or in charge of making them, what should you keep in mind?

  • Open offices create more frustrations for employees due to the various distractions, like lack of privacy and increased noise, according to these results from a 2013 study.
  • Researchers determined that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction…was doubled in open-office plan offices compared to private offices.”
  • Employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.
  • Added exposure to germs and heightened sickness is a side effect of this modern style. Germs are easily spread due to proximity and workers are generally sicker due to increased levels of stress and higher blood pressure from the inability to properly focus.

Interpreting the Noise

Let’s get back to that productivity we mentioned earlier as the means for creating these types of work environments in the first place. Some may argue it’s been given falsely due to all the problems modern employees are now reporting in an open office. The absolute number one issue? Noise.

Prolonged exposure to noise can have serious side affects, and physiological indicators of stress have been noted as a consequence of exposure to noise in offices with open-space designs. Cornell researchers reiterate some of what we already know, stating that noise can affect workers in the following ways: decreased productivity, increased illness, increased hormone levels, stress, lower job satisfaction, lower morale, fatigue, and interference with speech. Reading comprehension and the ability to retain information are the most common tasks reported as affected by disruptive noise.

But at what point does noise become disruptive? And what can we, as modern employees in open-space environments, do about it? In order to find an appropriate solution for your workplace setting, it’s important to understand the basics of noise to begin with.

Noise can be described as unwanted sound, but in truth noise is the sum of its properties: duration, frequency, and intensity. Sound is measured in decibels, where higher frequencies carry the most weight of a sound’s measurement. Sounds greater than 65 decibels (dBA) are considered to be distracting and disruptive, according to standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

To put that into context, normal conversations had between just two people measure at 60 dBA. Conversations are what the open-space floor plan was meant to foster, remember? The belief is that without walls, people are more likely to spontaneously talk and discuss. This leads to brainstorming, resulting in more creativity and collaboration, ultimately in hopes of uncovering the next ‘it’ idea or revelation.

Conversations are what the open-space floor plan was meant to foster, but conversation is the number one antagonist of noise distraction in the workplace.

The reality is that conversation, also referred to as “intelligible noise,” is the number one antagonist of noise distraction. Intelligible noise would be akin to overhearing a meeting taking place down the hall from where you sit or listening to your coworkers whisper or talk quietly in a nearby cubicle. Our brains actually try harder to listen and decipher these words, resulting in a disconnect with the real task at hand and loss of productivity.

Intelligible noise combined with everyday occurrences like ringing phones, clicking keyboards on computers, heating and air conditioning units, doors opening and closing, people arriving or leaving—factored with the proximity of the noise to individuals—well, I think you get the picture. It can be incredibly difficult for the modern employee to focus in this environment.

Employee-Focused Solutions

The solution to the open floor plan means compromising to fit the needs of the individual. True productivity isn’t one-size-fits-all (or in this case, one-room-fits-all). It’s important to understand the landscape of your workforce, taking into account the fact that the working style of a group of designers may be different than that of account staff or content writers.

One potential way to accommodate workers’ needs could be to create truly separate areas for employees to comfortably work alone. These private areas need to be just that: private. The opportunity for breathing space from the bullpen dynamic may be all one needs to complete an assignment, find his center, and face the (potentially blaring) music of daily life in an open space office.

The open office floor plan trended largely because employers sought to redefine the way work and play coexist. After a decade of this widely-adapted movement, we know that the modern employee still seeks professional enjoyment and fulfillment. She or he may simply desire to produce quality work she or he can be proud of, instead of having more opportunities to connect with co-workers. While we can’t predict the future of workspace trends, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the true functionality of a modern workplace.

Want to Talk?

Niki Lim Roden

Director of Business Development