Quiet Matters

There’s a website that will simulate standard office noise in order to “set the mood” and enhance concentration for people who work remotely.

We tried it. For approximately four seconds. It was instantaneously apparent that the background noise would detract from focus, not add to it. That got us thinking: Going directly from silence to office noise creates such a jarring effect that it’s very noticeable, but by simply following normal routine and showing up at the office each morning, we might not be as aware of the impact. And what’s the cost of that?

It turns out, we’re not the only ones who have wondered. Psychologist Nick Perham studies the effect of sound on how we think. His work, reported in the New Yorker, demonstrates that “office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even do basic arithmetic.”

Many of us throw on headphones and listen to music to try to block out the chatter and ringing phones, but we have bad news: that doesn’t help. Perham found that even the music can impair our mental ability (though not as much as the office commotion).

Another study, conducted by psychologists at Cornell University, involved exposing clerical workers to noise typical of an open-office environment for three hours. The subjects experienced increased levels of epinephrine, a.k.a. adrenaline, which is “associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response.” And that was only after three hours, which is less than half the typical workday.

The craziest part? People exposed to the noise didn’t shift their position as often, either. They literally moved less, which caused “increased physical strain.” They also showed signs of being “less motivated and less creative” in comparison to working in a quiet environment.

You’ve probably already noticed that acoustics and office layout matter. Now you have proof to back it up.