Your Open Office May Be Making You a Crappy Worker

Take your earbuds out for a minute and pay attention, kids. Show of hands, how many of you work in an open office environment? Now, how many of you are distracted by your coworkers' conversations, phone calls, loud typing, and exaggerated chewing?

It turns out that obnoxiousness could actually affect the quality of your work. I know you're shocked to hear that but just bear with us.

Fast Company writes:

Recent survey data from Cambridge Sound Management revealed the impact of noise on productivity, which will likely come as no surprise to those of us working in open offices. The survey revealed nearly 30% of office workers are distracted by coworkers’ conversations. These distractions appear to impact men more than women, with one in three men saying they were distracted by noise at work, compared to one in four women.

Justin Stout, Cambridge Sound Management’s acoustical expert, says noise in general isn’t to blame when it comes to lost productivity. “When we talk about distractions what we’re primarily concerned with is intelligibility,” says Stout.

Meaning, general noise like the kind at a coffee shop isn't really a problem. It's hearing half of a conversation as your colleague yaps away on the phone that really messes with your brain.

This is not new information, of course. When the New York Times wrote about it earlier this year, they reminded all of us that though we walk upright on two feet and purport to be civilized, really we're all just animals at heart:

Noise taps into a primitive part of the brain, said Mike Goldsmith, author of “Discord: the Story of Noise” and the former head of the acoustics group at the National Physical Laboratory in England. In some ways, we are still like animals in the forest, he said, listening for sudden or unexpected sounds — or even the absence of sound. Think how jolting it can be when an air-conditioner suddenly stops running.

Both consciously and unconsciously, we are monitoring our work area for sounds and classifying them as they hit our ears, Dr. Goldsmith said. Then we decide to ignore them (the colleague’s conversation with a spouse) or heed them (someone calling our name).

The problem is particularly bothersome in open office environments:

In open work spaces, even small noises have the potential to distract us, Dr. Goldsmith said: Because so much hearing occurs unconsciously, we may feel stressed from working in an open office and not know why. Noise “is really quite insidious in that sense,” he said.

So while you're think it might be your work or the number of hours it takes to do it that's stressing you out, it could actually be the fact that you're forced to work like pigs in a barn among loud ass coworkers. No wonder so many of you constantly have your earbuds in.

Sealing yourself off from the noise all but defeats the entire purpose of an open, "collaborative" work environment, but the alternative — throwing one of your spare monitors at the nearest loud coworker — isn't really an option.

PwC even claims that despite reducing the square footage per person while additionally hiring more people to fill the same space, its open work environment encourages productivity. Despite all evidence to the contrary above.

So the next time you get a terrible performance review, go ahead and blame the guys sitting in their own nice quiet offices for deciding to house you all in one big room like a bunch of animals.

Have something to add to this story? Give us a shout by email, Twitter, or text/call the tipline at 202-505-8885. As always, all tips are anonymous.

Related articles