Yet Another Reason Open Offices Are Bad

Reason #190: Co-workers!

By now we are all aware that open offices are not good for anyone, but especially the people who they are specifically designed to benefit: you, sitting at a computer, making an email, checking your phone under your desk and kicking your shoes off before noon.

For the easily distracted, an open-office is a trap where productivity goes to wither and die. According to NPR, the number one reason for this is what you suspected all along — your coworkers.

What’s More Distracting Than A Noisy Co-Worker? Turns Out, Not Much

According to workplace design expert Alan Hedge at Cornell, 74 percent of workers say they face “many” instances of disturbances and distractions from noise.

“In general, if it’s coming from another person, it’s much more disturbing than when it’s coming from a machine,” he says, because, as social beings, humans are attuned to man-made sounds. He says overheard conversations, as well as high-pitched and intermittent noises, also draw attention away from tasks at hand.

I once shared a conference room with five other people once for six months, trapped in a windowless space with one person who typed so loudly that I had to wear earplugs and headphones in order to concentrate. The shared music played over the office sound system never bothered me. Neither did the din from outside. Now I feel better knowing that I’m not crazy! Noise from co-workers is officially the worst, as confirmed by science.

A coworker stops you on the way to the bathroom and asks you about your shoes and fifteen minutes is gone. Your boss finds you in the kitchen and talks to you for longer than you’d like about Westworld, while you shift awkwardly from foot to foot, really needing to pee but not being able to escape. The person who sits two desks down from you has a laugh that’s sharp and unexpected, scaring you every time as it echoes across the cavernous warehouse your company calls an office.

These sap your productivity, your value, your time. What’s the solution?

Aside from complete and total isolation — barricading yourself in a supply closet with your computer and nothing else — there really isn’t one. Working with other people in an office means you will encounter their quirks, tics, noises and whatever else comes along with it, so we all just have to deal. Or, we can consider some of these solutions.

The trend toward open offices and hard office furniture makes noise distraction worse, so adding carpet, drapes and upholstery can help. He recommends, perhaps counterintuitively, getting rid of cubicle walls, which provide the illusion of sound privacy, but actually make people less aware of the noises they create.

Keep the cubicle walls, I say. Everyone keep quiet. Quieter, even. It’s the least we can do.

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