If you work in a cubicle-based office, these findings may or may not surprise you:
- Lack of “speech privacy” is the number one complaint in offices worldwide.
- Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office.
- Speech is the most disturbing type of sound in offices because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory.
- Cubicle dwellers are more unhappy and less productive because of noise distractions.
Originally designed to save space and foster communication between co-workers and management, the open-plan office has backfired for many, providing too much communication and too little privacy. With so many offices having adopted cubicle layouts worldwide, many staffers are finding ways to escape their noisy co-workers: headphones, barricades consisting of file cabinets and piles of folders, books and even boxes.
Social scientists have been studying the cubicle’s contribution to productivity – or lack thereof – and are discovering more than they had bargained for. Researchers at the University of California, Berkley surveyed more than 65,000 workers in North America, Australia, Africa and Europe who work in cubicle-style offices, and found that more than half complain of lack of “speech privacy” – which is the number one complaint among office workers everywhere.
There is a whole cubicle culture that has festered in workplaces for decades, making workers miserable, unable to focus, and not as productive as they could be due to the constant noisy distractions and interruptions. Companies are finally beginning to pay attention to the noise problem and its affect on the bottom line. Offices are being redesigned, sound abatement material is being installed in cubicles, interior office designers are incorporating soundproofing material in new cubicle wall designs, and acoustical engineers are being called upon to help right the wrongs.
“Sound masking” has become a particular focus for some managers, determined to address volume issues without losing the cubicle setups altogether.
An evolving technology etiquette is becoming the norm in many cubicle-style offices as well, and staff are wearing headphones to block out noise and distractions. Headphones are the new wall, according to one Manhattan office worker.
John Goins, who lead the survey team underwritten by Berkley’s Center for the Build Environment, says that with few exceptions – those being the workers who are the noisemakers – most office workers are unhappy with cubicle life.