A reader recently emailed to ask us if there’s been any research about whether poor working conditions such as a noisy or overheated office affect motivation and efficiency. Wouldn’t it be great if you could document to your employer that the guy in the next cubicle’s constant gabbing on the phone is negatively affecting the company’s bottom line?
Greta did a search of the literature (and made some queries to colleagues who specialize in industrial / organizational psychology) and confirmed my suspicion that there has been a great deal of research into how working conditions affect productivity. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you’re running a megacorporation, you don’t want to invest a lot of money in soundproofing your cubicle farms unless it’s going to pay off.
Interestingly, however, in 2000 Gary Evans and Dana Johnson did a more comprehensive assessment of the research on noise in the workplace and found that many studies focused on very loud noises like heavy machinery, not office noise. Most of those studies, unfortunately, were poorly designed, but the general finding is that people can adapt pretty quickly to a noisy environment.
Evans and Johnson say there have also been some studies of how people performed on difficult tasks after being exposed to loud noise. These studies have found that in general, when people can’t control the noise in their environment, they are less willing to persist on a difficult task: they are less motivated. But if they believe they can control the noise, then this problem disappears.
Other studies have found that irrelevant speech (e.g. someone talking loudly on the phone) is indeed disruptive when working on difficult tasks. But again, little research has been done on the “random” noise in a typical office environment.
So Evans and Johnson paid forty clerical workers, all women, to perform basic clerical tasks (mostly typing, mixed with filing and simple accounting) for three hours. Half the women did the task in a quite laboratory (ambient noise of 40 dBA), and half heard recorded office sounds at levels ranging from 55 to 65 dBA. They didn’t know that the study was about sound levels; they were told that the study’s purpose was to assess “computer work-station equipment.” The women also had to give urine samples at the start and end of the task to assess levels of hormones associated with stress (not fun, obviously, but they did get $150, so they were well-compensated for a few hours’ work).
At the end of the three hours, the workers were given four puzzles (line-drawings that they had to trace over without lifting their pencils) and told to work on each puzzle was solved or they were convinced they couldn’t solve it. Two of the puzzles, it turned out, were unsolvable, and the number of times they tried to solve these unsolvable puzzles is established to be a reliable way to measure persistence. Here are the results:
Epinephrine levels, considered to be the best physiological measure of stress, were significantly higher after the noisy working environment compared to the quiet environment. Meanwhile, persistence on the impossible task was significantly lower. So it appears that workers are both more stressed and less motivated when working in noisy environments, even after a three-hour period, which might seem to be plenty of time to adapt to the conditions.
Evans and Johnson believe that these results may be related to the uncontrolled-noise studies. The negative results occurred because these office noises — which included typing sounds, voices, and doors opening and closing — were out of the workers’ control. Despite these dramatic differences in stress level and persistence, typing speed did not vary significantly between the two groups.
During the study an experimenter also recorded when the workers adjusted their office furniture and equipment. The workers in the quiet office adjusted their equipment significantly more often than those in the noisy office. Evans and Johnson argue that this might lead to more musculoskeletal disorders, because workers in noisy environments are less likely to adjust their chairs and other equipment to suit their needs.
So although moment-to-moment productivity doesn’t appear to be affected by a noisy environment, the increased stress levels and possibility of work-related injuries may lead to costly health-care expenses for employers in the future.
So it seems that if you’re an employer who only expects workers to perform menial tasks and you don’t care about their long-term health, it might not make economic sense for you to provide a quiet work environment. But if you want workers who are healthy and persistent in the face of adversity, then offering a quiet space for them to get their work done is probably a good idea.
Evans, G.W., Johnson, D. (2000). Stress and open-office noise.. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(5), 779-783. DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.85.5.779