Finding peace and productivity in cube farms

The New York Times has a good piece on cubes, bullpens and other open office work environments and their impacts on productivity. As traditional offices become less popular, it’s important for us to realize that it’s not enough to just put in desks; creating a work environment that fosters productivity takes purpose and forethought.

The biggest complaint with open office environments is noise, and this is largely because too many companies think that creating an open, collaborative environment is as simple as getting rid of fixed offices. But it’s so much more than that:

When Autodesk, a software company, moved into a an open-plan building in Waltham, Mass., three years ago, it installed what is known as a pink-noise system: a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices.

Autodesk ran the system for three months without telling the employees — and then, to gauge its impact, turned it off one day.

“We were surprised at how many complaints we got,” said Charles Rechtsteiner, Autodesk’s facilities manager. “People weren’t sure what was different, but they knew something was wrong. They were being distracted by conversations 60 feet away. When the system’s on, speech becomes unintelligible at a distance of about 20 feet.”

If you find yourself more at ease and able to work when you can hear the air conditioning running, it’s because you find the white noise soothing. A lot of people do, and open work environments without background noise are a disaster for productivity. The issue isn’t that people don’t like working in environments with noise, but rather that people get distracted by other people talking.

Background noise is soothing and helps us concentrate. It blocks out the world. But talking isn’t background noise. Our brains begin to try to process the conversations of others and we begin to get distracted.

Office environments need to be purpose built. Quietness is the enemy. Too much of the wrong noise is the enemy too.

In many open work environments everyone feels like they need to be quiet like they’re in a library. Quietness breeds more quietness, which makes every breech of the quietness stand out.

There are some great open work environments out there, and others were clearly built just to save money. Best practices for open work environments would include some kind of background noise, purpose built acoustics, providing quiet spaces for work, having lots of meeting rooms and allowing for remote work.

Without all of those, a cheaper open work environment may end up costing a company a lot of money.