“Time and Silence are the most luxurious things today”.
One of the most common complaints that one gets to hear from those working in offices these days is about their noisy colleagues. If you visit an office, especially the one that employs the new young folks, you can hear constant requests of “Can you keep it down?” or “Please, let’s just have a few minutes of silence.” And if you have ever worked in a cubicle, you know that feeling when your work is getting piled up, you don’t have enough time to get everything sorted, but your colleague from the opposite cubicle starts discussing the last episode of Big Bang theory or Big Boss.
The landscape of office environment has tremendously changed in the last few decades. There was a time when the location and the furniture inside one’s office were symbols of power and prestige in the company. The much coveted ‘corner office’ on the top floor indeed gave the benefits of closed doors such as of privacy and confidentiality. However, with a push in recent years towards flatter organizations, less hierarchical roles, and collaborative work, the world of open workspaces, cubicles, and co-working environments has emerged.
The idea of cube farms, where a huge room accommodates several employees through temporary partitions, caught the fancy of most companies for several reasons. Firstly, it was a major cost cutting activity – the office could be designed almost instantly to accommodate more or less people as the size and structure of the company changed. With the acceptance of flexible work-from-home working arrangements this environment further helped with minimizing wastage of space. And then there were benefits of team work, coordination, and better collegiality.
One big cost of this open office culture though has been the invasion of privacy and associated noise levels. In a survey conducted with more than 1,200 workers across industries, advisory firm Oxford Economics found that the number one factor rated for a healthy work environment was the "the ability to focus and work without interruptions"— much higher than even having a breakroom, getting free food, or access to natural light.
In another research conducted by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear at the University of Sydney title Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices, of all the different kinds of annoyances of office life, noise levels and lack of privacy (both visual and sound) were the major concerns. 60% of cubicle workers and half of those working with partition-less offices showed frustration with lack of sound privacy. Lack of workspace cleanliness, room temperature or air quality – which could be other legitimate concerns with open office structures – were much less of an issue.
Noteworthy in their research was also the finding that the benefits in terms of enhanced interaction and collaboration did not offset the disadvantages from these open office plans. With the lost productivity, companies could inadvertently be suffering tremendously. According to Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business, office workers are 66% less productive in an open-plan office than when left on their own "Sound affects us psychologically, physiologically, cognitive and behaviorally, even though we're not aware of it…We have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations, so if you're listening to one conservation particularly you're only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write.
Oxford Economics study further found that more than half of respondents indicated that they do not have the tools they need to handle workplace distractions. Listening to music through headsets and headphones seems to be the most common solution though it is debatable whether this is a healthy practice. Many others solve this problem by blocking out distraction through visits to the breakroom or taking walks outside. Perhaps the frustration that results from such office environments has motivated millennials to prefer telework without coming in to a central office.
These findings point to an important policy issue for companies. Benefits like free snacks, paid leave, and even fancy perks like genetic testing are perhaps not as effective as providing a quiet workplace in order to retain high-quality productive employees. It is time we fix the issues of having nosy and noisy colleagues. And it is important to help employees find some quiet time not only because it is related to productivity but also to happiness and satisfaction. As I heard Tom Ford say, “Time and Silence are the most luxurious things today”.