Nearly everyone who works in an open office has a story to tell about its less-than-ideal acoustics, i.e. the “noisy office”. The tale usually revolves around overhearing a colleagues’s personal phone conversations. Or, if you’re just sitting at the “right” (technically wrong) desk, it’s impossible to drown out the water cooler chatter about the previous night’s playoffs or some viral news item being recounted in such great detail that the term “ad nauseum” suitably applies. It’s easy to see why the issue of distraction is a significant concern for the majority of people working in offices. The most common complaint we hear from clients is the office is too “noisy” and they need our help to make it “quiet.”
Along a similar line, one of my colleagues, Ben Markham, performed a study of seventeen libraries at Princeton University several years ago. His group polled the facilities’ users (students, professors, librarians, etc.) on these areas and received an admittedly unsurprising response: people’s favorite libraries are “quiet” and “free of distractions.” But shortly after, an unexpected finding developed after assessing the actual sound levels in these spaces; the favored libraries were not quiet at all, but rather these top-rated libraries had a consistent, moderate level of background sound. The libraries that yielded the quietest measurements (without significant mechanical system or human commotion) were rated less comfortable to work in by users in the initial survey. Upon further investigation, Ben found that the absence of a neutral, indistinguishable background sound lead to more reports of distraction because unpredictable commotion (primarily conversations and human activity) was more intrusive and disruptive when there wasn’t any other sound to offset it.
Today, researchers are investigating how different personality types thrive under different conditions. Results from these studies suggest those with introverted tendencies favor a more private, less distracting space than those characterized as extroverts, who seek a more active, less isolating space. The hustle and bustle that allows an extrovert to thrive is the same exact distraction that interferes with an introvert’s productivity. Hence my “quiet” may not be your “quiet,” if we have different personalities.
The flexibility of office workspaces has become an important design element to allow us introverts and extroverts to work together in harmony. Ultimately, workplaces should include collaborative areas where dynamic conversations are corralled into one space while a moderate level of background sound hums away to accommodate those who need time to themselves for concentration. In the end, all of these spaces may just be our own version of “quiet,” just in many different forms than each of us would expect.