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The Not So Silent Office Productivity Killer

There’s a reason you work better in the coffee shop, and it’s not because of the caffeine.

[Photo: Flickr user Jim Pennucci]

We all know checking our email and social media feeds take a bite out of our daily productivity, but there’s another culprit that may be your be draining your mental resources: noise.

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.

He gives the example of an airport lounge. While the background sound level in most airport lounges is fairly low, Stout notes oftentimes there’s a television somewhere in the room, typically tuned into a news broadcast station. "When I’m sitting in this environment and I’m writing an email or reading a book, I have a really hard time focusing. I’m distracted by the television because I can hear the speech," says Stout.

On the other hand, when working in a loud coffee shop, Stout often has no trouble concentrating on high-level work including reading or writing. The reason, he says, is intelligibility. While it’s easy to make out the words spoken by the broadcaster on the television in the airport lounge, the various sounds in the coffee shop are jumbled together, creating what is frequently referred to as a "hum." "In the coffee shop, the noise is meaningless in my brain. It’s not intelligible speech that I’m trying to pay attention to, it’s just a cacophony of sound," says Stout.

While many of us may have no trouble concentrating in a noisy office, sitting beside someone who frequently makes phone calls or who regularly has visitors who stop by their desk to chat, may be incredibly distracting simply because we can make out the words spoken.

What’s even more distracting than hearing two coworkers speaking, Stout says, is only hearing half of a conversation, such as a phone call. "The brain is trying to keep together the conversation. You hear half of it and the brain wonders what the other half is saying," he says. Cambridge Sound Management’s survey revealed nearly 59% of respondents don’t leave their desk to make personal phone calls.

Headphones As The Solution? Not Quite.

While you may enjoy listening to music while at work, the same concept of intelligibility comes into play. Stout says music with lyrics can be just as distracting when trying to complete tasks that require a higher level of cognitive processing—such as reading or writing—as a colleague speaking loudly on their cell phone next to you.

Instead, Stout recommends listening to music without lyrics, such as classical or electronic music. "The cognitive processes that are needed to understand and interpret lyrics are very different than the processes required to simply listen to rhythms," he says.

Should Your Office Become a Silent Retreat?

Despite all this talk about noise, the key to enhancing productivity is not to treat the office like a library. "Being in a very quiet space is unnerving for a lot of people," says Stout. "Anytime you’re in an environment that is very quiet, any small noise becomes distracting." An environment that is too quiet can be just as distracting as a noisy one.

The sound of a plane flying overhead may startle you, as can the sound of the air conditioner kicking on or turning off. The key to enhancing productivity through sound, Stout says, is consistently generating that office "hum"—the unintelligible mixture of sounds.

Stout recommends offices create separate zones for focus-driven work, giving employees the option to retreat to a quiet space if needed, and providing secluded areas for employees to hold private phone conversations. An in-house coffee shop wouldn’t hurt either.