Noisy Workplaces

Coworkers can be a challenge. Some time ago, I penned When it Stinks, addressing the workplace use of aromas. That train of thought returned to me when I read Why office noise bothers some people more than others. The office can be a noisy place. Years ago, I knew a lady that whistled softly on a near constant basis. Whenever anyone mentioned it, she was surprised. It was a long-standing and near-unconscious habit. 

One of her coworkers hated the noise of that whistling. She responded by wearing a set of Nascar headphones (the kind that fans use to block racing noise and to listen to various pit crews' conversations with drivers). Because this employee's hearing was thus dampened, she kept the ringer on her phone at full volume. When that extension rang, people across the office would jump. And, she had a habit of replacing the handset on the phone with a loud, violent slam that was likewise distracting. Essentially, the two employees' habits wore on each other. But, for some reason, others seemed able to ignore them both.  

Why office noise bothers some people more than others describes a growing trend in workplace design, the "open" environment. There is advocacy for group settings, fluid spaces, and less constraint from office walls, cubicles, etc. A million years ago, I was enrolled in a school that had embraced this design, and we had no classrooms. Instead, we were in a large room collectively, but grouped therein into subject matter subdivisions. The students did not move between classes, but the teachers would rotate from group to group. It was distracting and non-conducive to learning. It was antithetical to learning, but someone had sold the idea to the school board, and the effect on the students was deemed irrelevant. 
A similar "group" environment was inhabited in England in 2016. A ridiculously expensive building for research, a "veritable cathedral of science" was opened for scientists. It was a "collaborative, open-plan space." The idea was to promote interaction and productivity. 
But, "for all its lofty aims, ironically, the building fell short in the face of some scientific truths." It turns out that noise can be distracting (who knew?). The article notes that "some of us" find other people's conversation, phones ringing, pen tapping, printers, eating, and more can frustrate our productivity. To some, the noise can be "enraging" even (picture yourself wearing a Nascar headset in the office). 
The authors note that the "open plan" is not new. It dates to 1904. And, since then "the open-plan office has conspired with several other timely creations (electronic and otherwise) to make the modern workplace an aural nightmare." There are a variety of people who notice a variety of noises and find themselves fighting for productivity. It is potentially troublesome in any environment, but the contention is that the "open plan" facilitates frustration with its acoustics. 
The article is careful to remind us that there are a vast array of noises and personalities. It is therefore extraordinarily difficult to predict what noise will affect which person. It notes that phones and whistling are among the "most vexing," along with various body noises such as "coughing, sneezing, and sniffing." As to personalities, some people work better in silence, others better with some background noise. The author notes there is even a popular YouTube of office noise; the implication being some seek this noise. 
Others who desire background turn to music. The article characterizes this as "extremely common." It cites one study supporting that on average workers spend "nearly a third of their working week listening to" music. Some claim it enhances concentration and others merely crave the distraction it provides. Thus, opposite paths to a singular solution. That in itself is both curious and interesting. This may simply be more reinforcement of our human differences. 
We are all different. Through studies, largely apparently subjective and opinion survey-based, researchers have striven to understand how our "who" (we are) influences the "how" (we react). Their conclusion is that all of their test subjects performed better in silence. But, if there is noise, "the more extroverted (test subjects) were, the less they were affected by noise." This may demonstrate that our personality and predilections may contribute to how we personally react to noise in our environment. But note the first conclusion: test subjects all performed better in silence. 
Thus, the more introverted a worker is, the more likely a noisy environment will affect productivity. The more "neurotic they are" the "more affected by background noise." The ultimate conclusion may likely simply be that we are all different. Thus, the "best" environment for creativity and productivity may be different for each of us. And, it is possible that what is "best" may vary as our personal moods do likewise. We may thrive in an "open" environment one day, and crave a quiet office the next. As an aside, it is practical therefore for employers to test prospective employees if they seek to maximize performance in a given setting. 
Scientists have labelled our reaction to noise: "misophonia." They note that research supports "that as many as one in five" in one study "were consistently bothered by specific sounds." It is possible that we each have our own specific triggers. It is also possible that whether the noise of a particular coworker disturbs us might be in part interrelated with whether we otherwise like or respect that coworker. Perhaps we can tolerate noises from those with whom we otherwise enjoy working? 
The author notes a variety of historically significant people who notably exhibited a desire for quiet. They found noise distracting, and were notably creative and productive figures. Therefore, that noise is troublesome to someone is not a determinative of their productivity potential, but a factor that must be addressed personally by each of us to facilitate productivity. 
In the end, the author contends that noise affects us all. Therefore, the "open plan" of our modern world is perceived as "flawed." Despite that, the author concedes that quiet is more important to some than others, and thus an individualized approach for one may be necessary despite an overall effectiveness of an "open plan" for others (perhaps many) who are better equipped to ignore its shortcomings. But, the general conclusion is that organizations should focus on acoustics over aesthetics in planning and building work spaces. Or, they could just issue Nascar headsets to everyone?
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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