The majority of UK office workers now work in an open plan environment, and with this rising trend comes some unique challenges. Open plan offices are often praised for their ability to promote collaboration and communication,   reduce required space, and cut down on costs in terms of fit outs and other fees, but for exactly the same reasons they offer staff very little privacy during their working day and as such can be a major source of distractions.

With no way to cut your own workstation off from the noise of both other members of staff and the various pieces of office technology and personal devices that litter the office environment, concentration can be a struggle. A recent analysis conducted by office furniture manufacturer Steelcase has highlighted the severity of this issue, reporting that the average office worker is distracted every three minutes. To make matters worse, it can take them up to twenty-three minutes to return to a task when distracted.

Research published last year by Oxford Economics also put emphasis on the issue, finding that more than half of office workers blame poor acoustic design for a reduction in productivity and happiness. On the other hand, another study of 13,000 people carried out by John Olson of BOSTI Associates found that those working in isolation, for example at home, are up to 56% more productive due to the lack of noise and distractions.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the issue stems from excess volume, but an analysis of 100 research papers carried out in 2015 by environmental psychologist Dr Nigel Oseland concluded that just 25% of the effect of noise in an office environment could be attributed to the volume. It further states that factors such as context, attitude, perceived control and predictability, and personality type will play a much larger part.

“Noise is a psychophysical phenomenon,” wrote Dr Oseland, “and as long as we continue to focus on physical metrics and disregard the psychological component, we will never resolve the biggest and often ignored problem of noise in the workplace.”

‘Irrelevant noise’ was singled out in a study published in the British Journal of Psychology as having a major role in creating distractions, whilst Scandinavian researchers Anders Kjellberg and Bertil Nordstrom found that sudden noise was far more distracting than constant background noise. So, whilst noise, and to some extent its volume, may contribute to workplace distractions, the truth is that it all comes down to what the noise is. The sound of constant typing, for example, will cause minimal distraction, as it is both expected in an office environment, and tends to be rather constant. A sudden yelp of frustration from a colleague on the other hand will drag your mind away from its current task in a much more detrimental fashion.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.
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