Problems with noise at work? A lot of it is in our heads

When it comes to working in an office, hell really can be other people. Many staff can have enormous difficulties coming to terms with the sounds that form the backdrop to their working day, especially if they work in open plan areas. The problem of noise at work is particularly acute right now because most UK employees now work in open plan offices and at workstations that are on average about 20 percent smaller than they were ten years or so ago. Yet, on the face of it, the business case for working in open plan offices is pretty clear cut. Not only is it more conducive to communication and less bound by ideas of that great contemporary no-no that we call ‘status’, open plan workstations not only take up around half the space of cellular offices, the costs of fitting out a cellular office are around 25 per cent higher than an equivalent open plan space. It’s no surprise that the open plan is the default model for most workplaces in many countries.

That is not to say that it is perfect. And the biggest problem appears to be the lack of privacy it provides and a greater exposure to other people and their devices. An analysis by office furniture manufacturer Steelcase found recently that the average worker is interrupted or distracted every three minutes and it takes them fully twenty-three minutes to return to a task after being interrupted.

The consequences of this are now very apparent. While open-plan offices are designed to encourage collaboration, research published last year by Oxford Economics found that more than half of employees say poor office acoustic design reduces their productivity and makes them unhappy. Many feel compelled to solve the problem on their own, blocking out distraction through visits to break out spaces, taking walks outside, or listening to white noise and music on headsets or headphones.