The smack of eating, the slurp of drinking. Loud talking and louder laughing. Coughs that just won't quit.
Sounds fill the air in offices everywhere — and they are wreaking havoc on the workplace, worming their way into our brains, distracting us from our work, and darkening our moods.
While a telephone's ring or a printer's whir can be problematic, the top offenders have a more organic source. "In general, if it's coming from another person, it's much more disturbing than when it's coming from a machine," workplace design expert Alan Hedge told NPR. He says that's because humans, as social beings, are attuned to man-made sounds.
Consider that more than 50 percent of employees complained about noise in a recent, multi-industry survey of more than 1,200 executives and non-senior employees — and that uninterrupted work time topped the list of what would make those workers more content. Millennials were especially likely to say they were bothered by sound. And 69 percent of supervisors reported laying out their spaces with noise reduction in mind. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed worked in open-plan offices.
The dominance of these free-flowing layouts certainly hasn't helped matters; as of the early 2000s, open plans were used by about 70 percent of workplaces. But while they are meant to ease communication or foster a collaborative company culture, in practice the conditions can inspire frustration, even hostility — especially around acoustics. As one employee summed up to Fast Company, his biggest gripe about open layouts was an "[i]nability to concentrate due to noise. Noise that is mostly talking. On phones. In groups. Work related. Non-work related. Blah, blah, blah blah blah. Constantly."
The negative effects of all this noise are well documented and wide-ranging. Overheard conversations can result in a 5 percent to 10 percent decline in the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing, and other forms of creative work. Noise can impair workers' ability to recall information and do basic arithmetic. It also can decrease productivity by as much as 86 minutes per day, a problem for employers as much as employees.
On the health front, unwanted noise can induce stress. In one study, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, which is associated with "the so-called fight-or-flight response," The New Yorker reports.
Coming at the problem from another direction, the lack of sound privacy proved to be the biggest drain on employee morale — beating out factors like temperature, amount of space, and amount of light — in a 2013 study out of the University of Sydney. People want to be able to speak unselfconsciously, and to have a conversation without broadcasting its content to the entire room.
So, how noisy is too noisy? Office workers prefer an environment where the decibel levels range between 48 and 52 dBA, according to research cited by Cornell's College of Human Ecology. (As compared with straight decibels, dBA measurements adjust for the relative loudness of sound as perceived by the human ear.) Whispering clocks in at 34 dBA, conversation at 60, a vacuum cleaner at 69, and heavy traffic at 90.
But it's not just the intensity of a sound that matters. Its frequency (meaning high-pitch or low-pitch) and the length of time it lasts also play a role, as does its unpredictability.
In some ways, we are still like animals in the forest, [Mike Goldsmith, author of Discord: The Story of Noise] said, listening for sudden or unexpected sounds — or even the absence of sound. Think how jolting it can be when an air-conditioner suddenly stops running. [The New York Times]
That type of constant monitoring, both conscious and unconscious, can be mentally draining, not to mention distracting. As electrical engineer Kendra Lyons told NPR of a loud talker whose conversation topics included gynecological appointments and family disputes, "It would throw me off, and then I would find it really hard to tune out and not listen to her for the rest of the conversation, so I would end up eavesdropping rather than doing my work."
Like many people, Lyons' solution is to listen to music (in her case, electronica or the Hamilton soundtrack). Others go for the silence of noise-canceling headphones, or take their conversations to messaging services like Slack or Gchat. Some offices have added white-noise machines to drown out ambient noise or created spaces where employees can go when they're in need of extra privacy (or the opposite, areas where people can gather for their water cooler talk).
Of course, if everyone remembered to show a little common courtesy, it would go a long way toward managing the problem. It's just hard to think straight when there's all that crunching and coughing.