Open office plans are all the rage these days, based on the perception that they help to facilitate conversation and coordination. However, they can actually be pretty distracting. This is because in an open layout, it’s easier for people to be distracted by “meaningful” sound.
Meaningful sound, in this case, refers to things like work-related conversation, which can sometimes be hard to ignore when it’s going on near you but doesn’t actually involve you. What qualifies as meaningful sound varies from person to person, but generally speaking, conversation is harder to ignore than noises produced by machines like photocopiers and printers.
A study performed in Japan found that meaningful sound can be highly disruptive for cognitive tasks required by work or school, where people need to pay attention to what they’re doing.
The study was based on the “odd-ball” paradigm, a test used to examine selective attention and information processing ability.
“In the odd-ball paradigm, subjects detect and count rare target events embedded in a series of repetitive events. To complete the odd-ball task it is necessary to regulate attention to a stimulus,” says study lead author Takahiro Tamesue of Yamaguchi University in Japan.
Although white noise did not distract the study subjects, meaningful noise such as conversation had an obvious effect on the performance of cognitive tasks.
What can you do to address this situation? A couple of easy solutions come to mind.
First, set up separate spaces for meetings and other gatherings, so employees can work together without distracting other workers with meaningful noise.
Another possibility is to mask meaningful sound with white noise or music, or provide employees with headphones.
“Surrounding conversations often disturb the business operations conducted in such open offices. Because it is difficult to soundproof an open office, a way to mask meaningful speech with some other sound would be of great benefit for achieving a comfortable sound environment,” Tamesue says.