Do You Need To Work At Home For Peace And Quiet?

Danielle Beurteaux

The offices of today look almost nothing like the offices of yesteryear. The open office concept, first developed in the 1950s in Germany, has become dominant, as has the philosophy behind its rasion d’être. Studies have shown that open-plan offices encourage collaboration and innovation.

But that doesn’t mean they’re popular with workers. That’s according to a new study from Oxford Economics and electronics company Plantronics called When the Walls Come Down, which surveyed 1,200 executives and regular worker bees to get some understanding of how they really view the no-office design. Turns out, those two groups have a bit of a divided opinion.

According to the report, executives place employee interaction (85%) highest when it comes to office design, closely followed by employee productivity and satisfaction (81% each). But “excessive” internal and external noise? Both lowest on the consideration rung (69% and 64%, respectively).

One reason for this is that many executives work in private offices – 62% have their own office. (See page 11 of the report for the breakdown; to be fair, some execs do work in an open plan as well.)

And employees say … stop the noise. And even though the youth of today (i.e., millennials, if we must use the term) are often thought to be the most distracted of workers, they’re the ones who would like some sound management at work, thank you very much. The research asked 300 workers between 18 and 35 years old about work, and they say noise is distracting, annoying, and negatively affecting their productivity and mood.

They’re right, says science – continuous background noise is disruptive and, in fact, we don’t adapt to it. Over time, its negative effects actually increase.

The best office designs offer both public and private environments, giving employees a choice that works best for the task at hand. Those might not be offices, per se – some companies have individual “pods” and private rooms available as-needed. Also, adding sound-absorbing elements and adding noise (counterintuitively) are two other ideas.

As cubicles have become dominant, so have headphones, which are the modern equivalent of a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Employees are also using technology to give themselves a rest.

According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, employees use social media like Facebook at work to “take a mental break.” Even if companies have rules about social media use at work, employees often ignore them – 55% of workplaces have rules about social media use on the job, and 77% of employees ignore them. (Oh, and that’s personal use; most don’t use work-related social media at all.)

As one respondent told Oxford Economics researchers: “I would love for the term ‘work/life balance’ to not exist for my son’s generation. It’s just life … work enters your personal life all the time. So, as far as I’m concerned, if my personal life enters my corporate life occasionally, that’s the tradeoff.”

But for companies that aren’t going to reconfigure their office setup any time soon, there’s an answer: letting employees work from home. Some say that telecommuting improves employee productivity, which is ascribed to working in a quieter environment. However, another study found that, yes, telecommuters are more productive than their office-bound counterparts, but only when they’re engaged with interesting tasks, not dull, quotidian ones.

For more on designing the flexible work environments employees need in order to thrive, read The Digitalist’s report on How to Design a Flexible, Connected Workspace.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.