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May 22, 2012

The Plea for Quiet in the Cubicle World

Do you work in an office with an "open" floor plan? A maze of cubicle walls with desks behind them in little spaces, open to the world as far as noise goes even though technically you can't see anybody without actually getting up. At least usually.

People who work in these types of floorplans are trying a variety of ways to get some semblance of their privacy, or at least their sanity, back. (Disclaimer: The office I work in does have one area with an open floor plan, but I do have my own office).
Oh, if only they stayed this clean

I saw this interesting article in the New York Times (probably linked from Instapundit, considering I don't know where else that I read would actually point me to that paper).

As people's walls have disappeared, they start putting up new ones. As Raj Udeshi, a software entrepreneur, is quoted in the article, "Headphones are the new wall." People are increasingly searching for their own space when they are crowded by their co-workers.

There are definitely some intriguing things in the article about what companies are doing to help alleviate some of this stuff. I guess it's cheaper than walls.

For example:
"When Autodesk, a software company, moved into a an open-plan building in Waltham, Mass., three years ago, it installed what is known as a pink-noise system: a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices.

Autodesk ran the system for three months without telling the employees — and then, to gauge its impact, turned it off one day."
They received a lot of complaints. I guess the frequencies did a good job masking the general office chatter around them.

"They were being distracted by conversations 60 feet away. When the system’s on, speech becomes unintelligible at a distance of about 20 feet."

I find that fascinating, as I didn't realize that kind of thing worked. I would think it would be exactly the opposite; the low-level noise would bother you despite the fact that perhaps you can't consciously hear it.

So what does an open office floor plan do to productivity?

People are bothered by the noise of their co-workers, of course. This isn't even necessarily an intentional thing. Sometimes you just have to be on the phone. And that phone conversation can get distracting for those around you.

The utter lack of privacy is another problem with this. People are increasingly turning to email or instant messaging to discuss more private things and to have conversations that won't bother their co-workers even if they aren't necessarily private.

I love this quote from the article:
"You talk to more people in an open office, but I think you have fewer meaningful conversations,” said Jonathan McClelland, an energy consultant working in the loft. “You end up getting interrupted a lot by people’s random thoughts."
I think that's totally true. You probably do interact with your co-workers more, just because you almost can't help it.

What about when a worker does need privacy of some kind? What if they're dealing with union issues, or they have to make a medical appointment? Some offices have a private area, but these aren't always useful because either they're used constantly by a couple of people are they just don't feel that private. Somebody can barge in at any time if they want to use it for the same reason, and thus you're interrupted again.

An interesting stat mentioned in the article from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health says that there is a 5-10% decline in performance for cognitive activities like reading, writing, and other kinds of creative things when workers are in an open office like this. I actually believe this totally. When I'm writing, be it a story, a blog post, or if I'm writing something for work, I like to have music on, and I prefer to be alone (which is easy at work, of course). However, the music has to be instrumental. If there are words, I do get distracted way too easily and my creative process is hampered.

Finally, the article mentions that some companies are offering a booth or two for employees to use when they need to chat with a co-worker. Evidently it inhibits the spread of the noise of the conversation so that it doesn't affect the rest of the office. I'm not sure exactly how that works, though I suppose it does. I would say that restaurants have shown how this can keep private conversations private, but it's hard to tell considering almost every restaurant has music or something else blaring and thus that could be what's covering it up.

Regardless, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Do you work in an open floor plan? If so, what do you think? Does your office do anything like the ambient noise that is designed to lessen the effect of other office noises?


  1. I interviewed with a local engineering group in Knoxville years ago and was very impressed w/ the VP I spoke with. He had had the opportunity to tour the MicroSoft headquarters & found valuable insight about office floor plans/dynamics from that tour. Every person at MicroSoft was given an office with a door they could close & lock. Research had been done that proved an open air concept (i.e., cubicles) provides anywhere from 800 to 1,000+ interruptions daily. Each interruption of concentration means that person then has to spend approximately 20 minutes to get back in "the zone" to where they were before that loud noise, or loud conversation, or ringing phone distracted them.

    I'm not a Bill Gates fan by any means of the imagination, but I found this to be just solid science and practicality at work. In addition, giving people an office w/ a door indicates a level of respect, and that can't be underestimated. I am not a fan of cubicles for these and many other reasons, but the most important and obvious one is lack of privacy. I think cubicles dehumanize us.

    Now, I finally posted a new blog! Come visit when you have time. :)

    - Dawnie

  2. You make it sound like it's all a bad thing, Dawnie. :)

    The statistics you cite do make sense, though, and it doesn't surprise me at all. It's too bad that offices have to make do with the building they have, and putting up those kinds of walls would often be prohibitively expensive.

    In our office, for example, while we only have the one area that's open (a bunch of us do have our own offices), there's no way they could section off each one with walls. And there's no way to fit the people we have into a different space to allow that either.

    Working at a university, it's not like we can just move our office, either. :)

    But you're right. Cubicles can work to dehumanize us, so it's imperative that people and leadership do their utmost to make sure that doesn't happen. Either by putting in walls or via some other method.

    And I have visited! And left a comment that you probably wouldn't have expected from me. :) Of course, you'll probably read that first, but oh well. :)

  3. I loved your comments, both of them! And I was impressed with you opening up to the degree that you did. That's the writerly side of you that I adore. Deep thoughts are just fun to share and ponder; at least they are to me! :)


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