Here Are the Background Noises That Turn an Open Office into a Nightmare

Here Are the Background Noises That Turn an Open Office into a Nightmare

December 5, 2019 Off By Katie Way

Anyone who’s ever been trapped in the workplace-turned-panopticon that is the open office knows the lack of physical boundaries can leave you feeling like an animal on display in the world’s most boring zoo. There’s been an abundance of research showing how the open office layout can decrease productivity and collaboration, put workers at risk for passing around contagious bugs, and increase stress levels, and that the supposed trade-off of privacy in return for increased ease of communication isn’t worth it. Researchers are now attempting to tackle yet another open office issue: Sound as a workplace nuisance.

One study, conducted by Takeshi Akita of Tokyo Denki University and presented on Thursday at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, looked at how the position of whatever is emitting the kind of background noise common in an open office (called “environmental sound”) changed the noise’s impact on workers. The study found that the direction sound came from impacted how irritating it was to the listener. The results showed that noise coming from behind a worker—specifically the sounds of other people talking or music playing at a regular volume—didn’t bother workers. But talking or music coming from directly to the left or right of a worker bothered them just as much as a lower volume of machine-generated noise did. “We suggest that the soundscape in workplaces should be planned with attention to the person's behavior, the meaning and volume of the sound source, and its spatial layout," Akita said in a statement.

This could explain why sharing one long desk with a loud typer or someone whose music bleeds through their headphones can feel especially grating while other office noises (the chug of the HVAC, awkward coffeemaker chats, the dulcet tones of someone inhaling a Sweetgreen salad a few desks away) may fade more easily into the background. It also subtly hints at the ultimate reason open office plans suck so much: The design isn’t conducive to the way people actually want to do their work. The open office space is a failed experiment, a misguided corrective to the cubicle meant to banish isolation that ramped it up instead. It’s getting more and more obvious how badly we need a redesign.

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