“Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory,” said Berkley Acoustician Valtteri Hongisto, who discovered that workers are more satisfied and perform better at cognitive tasks when speech sounds were masked by a background noise of a gently burbling brook.
Many studies show that conversations are shorter and less detailed in open offices because the discomfort level of having their phone conversations overheard has many workers unwilling or unable to bring themselves to have meaningful dialogues over the phone.
Trying to address privacy needs among office workers while maintaining the open concept for collaboration has become a cottage industry in itself. In 2009, software company Autodesk moved into a an open-plan building in Waltham, Massachusetts and installed what is known as a “pink-noise” system, which gives off a soft “whooshing” sound over a speaker system that mimics the sound a ventilation system makes. However, Autodesk’s system is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices, as this is how a dedicated sound masking systems works.
Still, despite the complaints worldwide about the open-plan and cubicle office designs, there are no plans to eliminate either because they are inexpensive and because the open floor design promotes communication. Certain workplaces, such as newsrooms and trading floors, depend on the open floor concept because informal collaboration is a critical element in these environments.
Finally, researchers at Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health have been studying the distance conversations carry in an open design office, and then analyzed the effect on those office workers who unwillingly overheard the conversations simply due to proximity. Their findings show a decline of five- to 10-percent in cognitive task performance that required short term memory efficiency (reading, writing, and other forms of creative work) among the unwilling listeners subjected to the conversations.