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Yet another way open offices are making you less productive

Surprise! Many creatives say they need quiet to do their best work. So why aren’t employers giving it to them?

Yet another way open offices are making you less productive
[Photo: Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin]

Loud and distracting open offices are pervasive in creative industries. But is that a good thing for the people who work in them? Not according to a new survey showing that 65% of creative people need quiet to do their best work. It’s yet another ill to add to the long list of problems with open plan offices, which have experienced an intense backlash over the last several years.

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The file-sharing company WeTransfer asked more than 10,000 of its users, who are overwhelmingly creative professionals, a series of seven questions about how their creativity works. Some of the results are expected: Most people get their best ideas while at work; creatives tend to be inspired by books, talking with friends, and travel; and they record their ideas with pen and paper. But there was one surprising finding: Silence is really important.

The survey found that quiet was the most important requirement for creative people to do good work, followed by a neat tidy space (at 32%), coffee (at 32%), and sunshine (at 30%). While music was the fourth most popular source of inspiration, podcasts were near the bottom of the list, with only 6% of respondents saying that podcasts inspire them. While music can play in the background, podcasts–which are almost like someone talking in your ear–aren’t a top priority for finding inspiration, perhaps because they can be distracting while you’re trying to work, breaking up that treasured silence.

There’s a fundamental contradiction between creatives’ desire for quiet and the reality of today’s open offices. A 2013 study found that nearly half the surveyed employees said that the lack of sound privacy posed a problem for them. Overhearing conversations was the biggest frustration that many had with their office, far more than visual privacy or even general noise level. A 2014 study by Steelcase that surveyed 10,000 workers found that people lost as much as 86 minutes per day because of acoustic distractions.

This disconnect between what creatives want and what offices provide has led to a whole new suite of products, from acoustically padded wall partitions to good old-fashioned headphones, to provide a respite from the noise. Some companies function more like a library, where people whisper when speaking so that others can stay focused.

There’s always one dependable solution, though: Build offices with more quiet spaces. After all, that’s the perk workers actually want.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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