Your cubicle neighbor talks a lot. Which is why you’re so excited for August vacation—not yours, his.
Unfortunately, the distraction caused by loud phone calls, conversation, or creaky desk chairs won’t necessarily disappear with your colleague.
It turns out that the humming of air conditioners, buzzing fluorescent light bulbs, and even the sounds of an empty office are equally distracting to workers.
According to studies, as reported by NPR, individuals are less attentive, slower to respond to queries, and more likely to answer questions incorrectly when working with loud white noise (heat vents were the subject of one 2004 study in Sweden).
“We’re designed to be listening…it’s very hard to shut it off,” explains Jo Solet, a Harvard Medical School researcher of the health effects of sound.
“When your brain is processing the buzzing and humming in the background, you can start to get sleepy, too. Sound familiar? ‘It produces a higher cognitive load, so it uses a higher level of concentration or effort to pay attention to your tasks…you can get fatigued,’ Solet says” according to NPR.
As a law firm office administrator, what can you do?
- Make office rounds and listen for potential distractors.
- Replace fluorescent lights with less-noisy ambient lighting, including plug-in lamps with energy efficient bulbs.
- Install cubicles with higher walls, which will absorb more sound.
- Create glass offices with doors that shut completely—this way, closed doors that keep out annoying sounds don’t also feel unwelcoming and anti-social.
- Encourage the use of an internal chat environment—like instant messaging between employees. Discourage gossip and hovering around desks and open spaces.
- Create a break room with a door that shuts so that casual conversation doesn’t flow out into the halls to nearby offices.
- Put down carpet on hardwood so that the sound of footsteps doesn’t travel.
- Talk to your employees about the most distracting habits of their coworkers, and look to subtly instate change.
Hearing a certain extent of background noise is normal. But, it’s providing that balance between soothing ambient sounds and shrill or sudden noises that’s key to productivity in the everyday workplace.
“There is a moderate, low-level amount of sound that protects privacy [in conversations],” says Solet to NPR.
Not only is silence golden in movie theatres, it’s also worth its weight in gold at the office.
And while the exact formula for the most productive office ambiance may be the best kept secret since the Coca-cola recipe, the sweet taste of silence can still be—in the least—this summer’s high priority for managers.