Ringing phones. Pinging e-mail. Co-workers’ ringing phones and pinging e-mail. How is anyone supposed to get work done in this place? A huge new study of “open-plan offices” finds that this type of workspace, divided by cubicle partitions instead of walls and doors, makes it hard for employees to do their jobs.
“Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction,” the study’s authors write in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, adding that “the open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”
The noise of the open office is one of employees’ chief complaints about it, and research shows that the ceaseless hubbub can actually undermine our motivation. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, 40 female clerical workers were subjected to three hours of “low-intensity noise” designed to simulate the sounds heard in a typical open office. A control group experienced three hours of blessed quiet. Afterward, both groups were given puzzles to solve; unbeknownst to them, the puzzles had no solution. The participants who’d been treated to a quiet work setting kept plugging away at the puzzles, while the subjects who’d endured the noisy conditions gave up after fewer attempts.
Another frequent complaint is the lack of privacy in an open office. In part, this is deliberate: designers and managers believed that once the walls came down, workers would be more likely to have the kind of casual or chance conversations that can inspire new ideas. This utopian plan may have backfired, however: research shows that while conversations are indeed frequent among employees in open offices, they tend to be short and superficial—precisely because there are so many other ears around to listen. To avoid self-consciousness and self-censoring, find private spaces to talk to your colleagues: go on a walk around the block or a trip to the coffee shop, or slip into an empty conference room.
The original promoters of open-plan offices also hoped that the setting would make co-workers available to help one another. That’s great for the help seeker; not so great for the help giver who has her own work to do. In a study released last year by a group of German and Swiss researchers, participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse. Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the details of their own task. They recommend that workers set aside a block of time each day when they are not to be disturbed. In order to minimize cognitive load, this period should last for a while—on the order of several hours.
Can You Tune Out The Open Office?
Look around any open-plan office today (especially one full of younger employees) and you’ll see that many workers deal with this problem by wearing ear buds or headphones. Although it might seem that importing one’s own noise wouldn’t be much of a solution, experts say that this approach could be effective on at least one dimension. Part of the reason office noise reduces our motivation is that it’s a factor out of our control, so the act of asserting control over our aural environment may lead us to try harder at our jobs. But does having a constant soundtrack to your day also distract you from the task at hand? That depends on the task. Research shows that under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse—sometimes dangerously so.
Absorbing and remembering new information is best done with the music off, suggests a 2010 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Adults aged 18 to 30 were asked to recall a series of sounds presented in a particular order. Participants’ performance suffered when music was played while they carried out the task as compared to when they completed the task in a quiet environment. Nick Perham, the British researcher who conducted the study, notes that playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks.
That finding is key to understanding another condition under which music can improve performance: when a well-practiced expert needs to achieve the relaxed focus necessary to execute a job he’s done many times before. A number of studies have found, for example, that surgeons often listen to music in the operating room and that they work more effectively when they do. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that surgeons carrying out a task in the laboratory worked more accurately when music that they liked was playing. (Music that they didn’t like was second best, and no music was least helpful of all.)
The doctors listening to their preferred music were also the most relaxed, as revealed by measurements of their nervous system activity. Still, surgeons might want to ask others in the operating room for their opinions on playing music: one survey of anaesthetists found that about a quarter felt that music “reduced their vigilance and impaired their communication with other staff,” and about half felt that music was distracting when they were dealing with a problem with the anesthesia. (And who would want to be the patient in that situation?)
Research suggests that singing along might even heighten the distraction. A study published in 2012 in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention reported that singing along with music in a car may slow drivers’ responses to potential hazards. Christina Rudin-Brown, a Canadian researcher who studies the role of “human factors” in traffic snafus, asked the participants in her experiment to learn the lyrics to “I’m a Believer,” as performed by the band Smash Mouth, and “Imagine,” as performed by John Lennon. Singing these songs while operating a simulated car increased drivers’ mental workload, leading them to scan their visual field less often and to focus instead on the road right in front of them.
Other iPod rules drawn from the research: Classical or instrumental music enhances mental performance more than music with lyrics. Music can make rote or routine tasks (think folding laundry or filing papers) less boring and more enjoyable. Runners who listen to music go faster. But when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.