Stop Noise from Spoiling Your Open Office

A beautifully-designed office can be a strong selling point in recruiting and retaining employees. Today’s open workspaces certainly look unique and can make a strong statement about company culture, especially to prospective employees coming in for an interview.

And while openness fosters creativity and collaboration at the workplace, there’s a downside, too:  noise and lack of privacy. The key is to find a balance so everyone’s needs are met.

The Good News About Open Offices

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, an open office design can be good for both your health and productivity.

It turns out that natural light really matters: research by Mirjam Muench has found that those work under artificial light become sleepier earlier than those who work in natural light. Moreover, studies of workers have found that a view of nature makes them less frustrated, more patient, more productive, and physically healthier.

Open floor plans and glass walls help both light and views become accessible to everyone, and there’s often a financial benefit as well: these floor plans are often less costly (on an employee-per-square-foot basis) than cubicles and private offices.

The Sound of Silence

And while less noise helps many people concentrate, research suggests that your brain actually craves complete silence. In one experiment testing how the brain reacts to different types of music, the silence was used as a control between the sound clips. But silence actually produced one fascinating effect. When compared with “relaxing” music—or even long silence before the experiment got underway—short, two-minute silent pauses between the music actually proved more relaxing on the brain. It seems the effect of silence is heightened by contrasting it with noise.

Silence isn’t simply a time-out for the brain, either. One study of mice found that “listening” to silence for two hours every day prompted the subjects’ brains to actually grow new cells in the hippocampus, which regulates our brain’s memory abilities. Conclusion: silence could make you a little smarter.

The Quest for Quiet

That being said, how is it possible to get the privacy you need in your office? There are several things businesses can do to reduce unwanted noise:

  • Provide dedicated quiet spaces. Similar to a quiet car on a train, businesses can transform an empty office or unused conference room into a “Quiet Room” that employees can go to when trying to focus. Providing small enclaves containing phones can encourage employees to make phone calls without disturbing their officemates. There’s even an EmagiKit Privacy Pod that can be added to an office to be used for private phone calls and a quiet place to focus.
  • Mask the sound by increasing background noise. It might seem counter-productive, but adding more sound to a workspace can actually make it seem quieter. Research suggests that noise itself isn’t distracting, but unwanted speech noise is. However, incomprehensible words are less likely to be distracting. Adding a continuous, low-level ambient sound to the job site (such as white noise) can help make conversations for listeners that aren’t intended to hear them unintelligible — and much easier to ignore.
  • Incorporate sound-absorbing materials without sacrificing design. For the organization that has a severe noise problem (read: call centers or co-working spaces among entrepreneurs and startups), there are a few innovating fixes that can be installed to reduce sound, such as sound absorbent dividing walls like the EmagiKit Accent Wall.

If your company hasn’t decided to pursue any of these solutions, try speaking up. Someone farther away from the source of distraction may not be aware of the productivity issues at hand. Or, form a committee with co-workers to brainstorm ideas. An employee-driven initiative could create more interest and ensure fellow colleagues would follow policies regarding noise levels.