Open offices are supposed to promote employee interaction, and to some extent they do, but the drawbacks are well-documented.

The biggest complaints made by open-office employees relate to hearing, and to being heard. A study from last fall reported "sound privacy" to be the greatest grievance by far among open-office workers, with general "noise level" not far behind.

Research suggests that great acoustic design can reduce the noise coming from across the room. But what can really be done about the colleague in the next cube over? Not much.

More and more, it seems like the best way to design an open office is to design an office that isn't really open.

More and more, it seems like the best way to design an open office is to design an office that isn't really open.

More and more, it seems like the best way to design an open office is to design an office that isn't really open.

Can Better Acoustics Make Open Offices Suck Less?

Please say yes.

If you're not familiar with the problems of open offices by now, you probably have a door to close at work. Open offices are supposed to promote employee interaction, and to some extent they do, but the drawbacks are well-documented.

These environments stress out workers. And distract their attention. And drain their motivation. And remove their privacy. There's a little to like, and a lot to hate.

The biggest complaints made by open-office employees relate to hearing, and to being heard. A study from last fall reported "sound privacy" to be the greatest grievance by far among open-office workers, with general "noise level" not far behind. Other research has shown that noise distraction results in twice as much wasted time in open offices, compared to private ones. This isn't just a matter of worker satisfaction; productivity is at stake.

It turns out that background noise messes with our minds—especially when that noise is a person's voice, and especially when that noise is a person's voice on the phone. These so-called "halfalogues," in which we only overhear one side of a conversation, are so infuriatingly unpredictable that our brains can't focus on much else. And in an open office, phone calls in nearby cubicles happen all the time.

Many open-office workers solve the noise problem with headphones, but with apologies to Dr. Dre and Bose, that seems like a poor solution. Doesn't a room full of covered ears undermine the very communal purpose of the open layout? Wouldn't it be better if designers created acoustical settings that dampen open office background noise enough for workers to get some actual work done?

Some new evidence suggests that's a tall order. A study out of Finland recently tested the impact of background noise in several different open-office designs, built with varying degrees of sound-absorption. The problem always came back to the cubicle next door. While certain designs mitigated noise from across the room quite effectively, none could "sufficiently decrease the distraction caused by speech from adjacent desks."

Let's take a closer look at what the researchers discovered. Below is a diagram of the experimental open office used for the study. The test room scores high for realism: It had four stations with three cubes each. Test participants sat at desks with computers. Meanwhile, a speaker playing a voice recording was situated at the corner of each station—simulating a colleague who's talking.

With this setup in place, the researchers then outfitted the test office with different acoustic designs. In one scenario, no absorption devices or masking sound was used, so the background speech from the speakers could be heard across the room. In a second scenario, ceiling and wall absorbents soaked up a lot of the noise. In a third, a masking sound (filtered pink noise) was added to the absorbents, significantly reducing the background voices.

Under these conditions, test participants completed a series of cognitive tasks at their cubicles. The researchers expected task performance to improve in the open offices with better acoustic design. To their surprise, that wasn't always the case.

Take the results of a relatively simple memory task that asks participants to recall numbers presented on a screen, in their original order. Participants in the open office with no absorption or masking devices actually did better on this task than those in either of the other two acoustically friendly design scenarios. (Those in a completely quiet setting scored the best.) Our rough chart of the data:

Some of the results were more encouraging; on one complex memory task, for instance, performance increased marginally as more background noise was masked or absorbed. Participants said they felt less disturbed as acoustic design improved—an effect that was strongest for those who considered themselves sensitive to noise. But on the whole, the effect of acoustic design on cognitive performance was "somewhat weaker than expected," the researchers concluded.

The results make sense to anyone who's spent time in an open office. Sure, great acoustic design can reduce the noise coming from across the room. But what can really be done about the colleague in the next cube over? Not much. One of the study's most telling results came when researchers asked test participants to rate the source of their distraction. Speech from across the room wasn't a problem for those in the best office (acoustically speaking) but speech from nearby still was.

As far as the researchers are concerned, adjacent cubicle noise means "that the acoustic problems resulting from unwanted speech in open-plan offices cannot be solved by room acoustic design alone." That doesn't make everything hopeless. There are ways to reconfigure open offices for enhanced privacy—chiefly, by providing quiet areas or rooms for phone calls or small meetings.

More and more, though, it seems like the best way to design an open office is to design an office that isn't really open.

[Image: Open office via Shutterstock]

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11 Comments

  • cb

    There is very little mystery left in this problem. It's an issue that's been considered and researched for over 50 years. The real mystery is why there have been so few - if any - good solutions (other than a door). Perhaps, though, the reason there aren't many good solutions in the market is less of a mystery than why office owners, managers and users put up with what are undoubtedly stressful work environments.

  • Completely malapropos: What's the point of including a picture of a climbing wall, uncredited and without mention of the fact that it is in fact a manipulated concept rendering? (The human / wall scale is way off.)

    As far as I can tell the image has been lifted from documentation of Brooklyn Boulders' new Somerville space: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/04/11/boston-rock-climbing-brooklyn-boulders-somerville/#ss__319626_1_10__ss

    Pedantry, I know - it just seems like sloppy image appropriation.

  • Having grown up in Public Schools which "experimented" with Open Class designs (thanks for experimenting with design to the detriment of many a student by the way) & since then becoming an expert in Human Factors/Ergonomic Design, I feel it is time for alternate voices to be heard. Open design is not conducive to mental based activities. At a time when the workplace in N America is becoming more mentally demanding, designers, FM & Corporate Real Estate managers trend with open office designs. These designs are occurring in the absence of carefully prepared Job Demands Analysis by Ergonomic experts & in the absence of expertise from human factors specialists in the area of cognition, mental task design & psychology. Hence the fact that employees are taking more time away from the workplace to call in sick or ask to work from home & just producing less or error prone reports/products/services. The ROI on using less real estate is never compared to the cost of lost productivity. OPC

  • leigh.taylor

    Great article, although I do think there's a middle ground that can be found. I agree with Matt about the often inappropriate use of the open plan. If the space is designed for purpose then it should reflect the way that people use it. I've worked in offices with noise dampening pods and they're surprisingly effective. There are some interesting stats and other options for sound proofing and noise dampening in offices here... http://paramountinteriors.com/shh-office-furnishing/

  • A bit of recent and important evidence about "sound dampening" devices - these are causing long term and permanent losses of hearing in specific ranges of sound perception. These are bandaid solutions - science and evidence based design needs to be demanded by build owners, business owners and designers. JESleeth OPC Inc

  • leigh.taylor

    JE Sleeth, I would see sound dampening devices as being used sparingly and only as an additional option for staff members. In my opinion it should be about giving people the opportunity to work where and how they want. Sometimes you need a door, but there's no denying that giving people less formal areas to meet aids collaborative working. It's a debate that won't go away but the extremes of Google slides and football pitch sized open plan offices are muddying the waters for smaller businesses who want the same kind of creative designs, often at the expense of what works best in their working environment.

  • The problem here isn't open plan offices. It's inappropriate implementation of an open office environment. An open office works really well for a company that thrives on collaboration and interaction, and if well designed - i.e. with quiet areas for private conversations or phone calls, meetings etc. can be a far more productive environment than separated, demarcated style offices. But almost every time I read criticism of open plan the major complaint is sound pollution from "the cubicle next door". Well of course it is, because open office design doesn't work in the cubicle environment. Open office design isn't the problem. Inappropriate "use" of open office design is the problem.

  • This a very valid point and one of growth edges that most co working spaces that ignoring. At Flo, you can mitigate the noise pollution of a large open space, by working in a more intimate environment.

    www.flocoworking.com

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