Office noise: Are your homicidal thoughts about your noisy office-mate justified?

ResearchBlogging.orgA 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

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The simplest solution to distracting noise from people talking is a white noise generator. Many inexpensive units are readily available. It would be interesting to see a three-way experiment, comparing (1) quiet, (2) people talking, (3) people talking masked with white noise.

To mask sounds, I've used two software packages that generate natural masking sounds, such as waves, rain, flowing water, and wind. For Windows, I've used "Atmosphere Deluxe". For Linux, I've used "Boodler". Both are quite relaxing.

The acid test for me was being the office manager for a group of four obnoxious commercial real estate brokers who bantered foully into the telephone when they picked it up ("hey, you old b**t**d, how the f**k are you doing, you miserable piece of s**t), got in fistfights in the office over corporate policy (corporate punishment, hahaha), and critiqued porn websites within earshot of my desk.

By the time I left, you could have strip mined me for purified epinephrine, I bet.

By speedwell (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

Interesting choice of words in the title. Have y'all spent quality time in a cube farm? ;) If I had to go back, my choice of 'natural masking' device would be a gas-powered leafblower, or perhaps a chainsaw.

By Matthew Platte (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

Perhaps the higher stress level in the noisy environment helped them focus so they realized more quickly that the puzzles were unsolvable. That would give an alternative explanation to the furniture moving too; more focus on your task means you don't bother with the furniture as much. Maybe.

I do know that I personally work much better in a somewhat noisy environment than in a quiet one. I may _like_ a private office better, but I know that I actually get more work done in an open office environment with other people and noises. With no people and no noise I get distracted.

I can handle the "generic" office noise, its the "unique" sounds that are heard over the general noise that demand attention. (i.e. a loud talker, a loud radio station, etc.) On the other hand, I enjoy the friendly banter of co-workers. Working in total silence may be more productive, but having friendly, not annoying, office mates do add some fun to the day.

I can handle the "generic" office noise, its the "unique" sounds that are heard over the general noise that demand attention.

Let me say: Bingo!

It always puzzled my mother how I could do my homework with the stereo going full blast, but not in a quiet room where she was rustling papers and coughing. For me, and I suspect I'm not an outlier, it's not about noise levels as much as it is about your brain being able to "predict" the noise, and therefor not be distracted by it.

Loud noise that's patterned is not as distracting as *any* noise that's out of place.

I am currently in a double-cube (yes, even more sadistic than the traditional cube) with someone who:

- Talks to himself constantly in a normal speaking voice (in other words, not whisper-quiet)
- Burps LOUDLY every 10 minutes throughout the day
- Interrupts me (!) to tell me all the "cool" things he's accomplished today

Time for a new job, methinks....

Try this on for size: I work in a call centre. When people are just talking on the phones, I have no issues. I tend to just adapt to that hum and I work fine. Unfortunately, there's the other noises. One of the most annoying is that the supervisors insist on shouting instructions across the entire office rather than just posting a bullet on our screens. These instructions may not even apply to me and I may be IN a call, which makes me stumble as I try to read from my screen and generally irritates the person I am talking to. I also have one supervisor who will just chat with employees for absurd lengths of time and will use his "outdoor voice" (probably because all of us have to talk louder into our phones to compensate, driving up the ambient noise level of the office, and therefore requiring that he get louder as well).

Then there's the kids who work there (a lot of the people in the centre are high school kids). They will whoop and chat and yell and so forth. Again, it makes me stumble when I read from my screen.

You don't need to analyze my urine to know how stressed I get at this job. I'm usually shaking and exhausted by the time I finish my shift, even though the work isn't particularly difficult and my shifts are relatively short (only about six hours).

Noise definitely has an impact on performance.

By Grimalkin (not verified) on 11 Jun 2008 #permalink

I completely agree with Dan and Graculus. We have a white noise generator, which is great, but the sudden outbursts from people is what distracts me the most. The guy sitting next to me does it often, and I feel more stressed the moment he comes in, just knowing it's coming (he doesn't always work in the office). When I work from home, I actually keep the TV on in the background, and get much more accomplished in a shorter time frame. (And yes, I did this when studying/doing homework, too!)

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.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 11 Jun 2008 #permalink

Yes to all of the above.

Add: noise-cancelling headphones? No luck.

I tried using them with no audio input, just as noise-blockers.

Sadly, the several kinds I tried all follow the FAA's requirement for use on aircraft: they do NOT block human voices well. They're not allowed to suppress voices so no matter what else you're listening to, they won't suppress emergency evacuation announcements and such.

They do take out the deep rumble of the building air circulation fans. I put them on my boss and showed her the 'on' switch and watched her amazement as the noise she wasn't noticing disappeared.

Now what I really want is a programmable noise blocking headphone --- where I can record a dozen samples of a typical noise (the ice machine down the hall breaking loose its load of cubes that crash into the bucket sporadically; the ice machine's compressor; the whine of the air fans that won't get lubricated til the next time the building does them all; the elevator lobby door slamming; the hallway door opening; the left front wheel on the office mail carrier's cart).

And then tell the software -- generalize from those. Eliminate those noises.

Anyone building this yet? Please do.

It'd be just like the old, excellent OCR hardware board I used to have under Win95, before OmniPage bought them and put it all in software --- it used to show you every blotch it detected in the image and let you say, for this document, typewriter, fax, _that_ splotch is always to be read as an "e" and _that_ splotch is always an "a" and _that_ one is always "rn" not "m" and so on. It took a long time to train on a few pages, then it would read hundreds of pages of crap exquisitely thereafter.

Same thing ought to work for noise suppression, if individually teachable.

OH, please, someone write/build this?

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 11 Jun 2008 #permalink

There were only two types of noise in the office that really got to me. The first was a radio (on a talk radio station) that was turned down to a low level but was still just barely audible - I found myself straining to hear was was being said. I eventually asked the guy to turn the volume up a bit, I was then able to ignore it.

The second type of noise was from the same office mate. Whenever he typed (which was often), he would just pound the space bar. All of his other keystrokes were at normal sound levels but his space bar stroke sounded like a gun going off. The pattern of the sound was just random enough that it was like the Chinese water drop torture.

By John Huey (not verified) on 11 Jun 2008 #permalink

I always find to much quiet tends to be a problem, I loose focus and get distracted by small things an (and this may relate to this study) spend far more time adjusting things than I need to. Noise within reason does help keep me better conected to reality, but some obnoxious/intrusive sounds can be stressful.

I'm an air traffic controller. About eight or nine years ago, we did a technology upgrade. All the new stuff was moved into a new room that was especially built for the new equipment. On the prescribed day, we moved out of the old room and into the new room. The new room had lower ceilings, and thus, the ambient noise level in the room, even with the same conversations going on, increased dramatically. Maybe I'm just getting older, but I seem to be distracted by the noisier room much more easily than I was before the move was made.

Oh, and radios? We had radios until a couple of years ago, when FAA mandated their removal. They had always been turned low, and no spoken word stations were allowed (no talk radio, no sports PBP, etc). Since their removal, the conversations have become louder, with a corresponding increase in distraction.

I have an officemate who hums. Constantly. Never mind epinephrine, what's the chemical marker for rage?

I'd like to know if it's just me or if there's a HUGE difference between ordinary typing and talking in the office vs. constant open-mouth chewing of potato chips, doritos, pretzels, fritos, etc., or incessant gum squishing, smacking, and snapping. These disgusting organic noises drive me absolutely mad, to the point my brain shuts down in protest and I can't focus on the most routine, menial task.

Wasn't corisol the gold standard for stress measurements?

Just reading this article has resulted in a rise in my epinephrine level simply because the study is grounded in stereotypical social norms around women's work. Forty women typing, filing, and doing simple accounting? Who the 'eff types anymore?


Well, it was a 2000 study. The study authors said that they couldn't find any men to participate so they focused on women. By "typing" I believe they mean on a computer, not a typewriter. I don't know about you, but I'm typing all day, even in 2008...

I may not file as much as I did in, say, 1990 (when I had a typewriter in my cubicle, but no computer), but I've got a pile of stuff waiting to be filed!

Dave, yes, I assumed they meant typing on the computer. I'm being a wiseass in the post-Hillary era.

It looks like the participants responded to advertisements in local news media for a research study on computer workstations and were paid $150 for their participation. I wonder if the ad was meant to target secretaries (88% of respondents)? The researchers say they restricted the sample to women for three reasons: (1) Most clerical workers are women (2) nearly all respondents to our advertisements were women (3) there may be gender differences in physiological responses to stressors. All three worthy of their own additional research.

Interesting study. It explains why I wanted to buy an airhorn for my cube at my last job and why I now work alone.

for the love of god please give people offices. cubes are the most penny wise pound foolish use of resources. how many more people do we have to hire because the people we have are distracted by irrelevant banter?

I completely agree with the posts above that state that random, uncontrollable sounds, loud or soft, are much more distracting than background hum, even if that is loud. Even a steady beeping can be ignored after a while, though it's annoying. I like the rhubarb-rhubarb-rhubarb and music at the coffee shop(s) where I work on papers, but if there's someone coughing or on a cell phone - gah! It's the surprise of the little noises and then the nervous anticipation of further distracting noises that stresses me out.
Come to think of it, I bet that's why cell phone conversations are more annoying than two people talking. When two people are talking, it's a steady (ignorable) background hum, but one half of a conversation leaves little pauses during which your brain relaxes, punctuated by talking at (seemingly) random intervals.
I think it's the audio equivalent of how blinking lights get your attention while stationary lights are easily overlooked. Actually, I'm sure I've read about this before. Wish I could think of the reference off-hand.
I work in a lab with a lot of background machinery noises, but what sets my teeth on edge is when the janitor rolls the garbage can across the tile floor or drops the hazardous waste bin. Having some music on masks those things somewhat. (If I'm in a cranky mood, the opening and closing of the door at the end of my bay is almost unbearable.)

Ha! You think noise is bad? I used to work in an enclosed space with a guy who farted nonstop. Thank God there was a window, tho nobody understood why I had it open all winter.