Why is it Harder to Work in a Noisy Office Than a Café?

There are a lot of situations in life that seem to happen with no rhyme or reason. Why does one sock always seem to go missing after a stint in the dryer? Why does my cat wait until I’m nodding off to sleep to sprint all over my apartment and knock things over? Why is it so much harder for me to concentrate at my desk than it is when I’m at a busy Starbucks?

As a writer, that last question irks me a little more than that other two — after all, I can always find a new sock and take away the catnip. But over my career, I’ve noticed that no matter how determined or productive I’m feeling, I just cannot get things done in an office that is full of chatty coworkers, clanking dishes in the breakroom or the occasional conference call that’s on speaker phone. (As a matter of fact, as I write this, I’m already struggling to remain focused because someone is doing the latter.)

So, what is it about idle chitchat in an open office that is so much more distracting than the ambient sounds of a busy café?

A group of researchers from the Yamaguchi University in Japan conducted a study in which volunteers were asked to complete computer-based tasks while listening to conversations or meaningless noises in the background. The acoustic scientists found that “productive, work-related discussions are far more likely to be distracting than random, meaningless noises or overheard sounds of conversation between strangers.”

The participants in the study were asked to count the number of times various objects appeared on their computer screens. During this task, the volunteers listened to either a “meaningful conversation or random noises at different pitches.”

During the experiment, the participants’ brains were monitored to understand if they were attempting to process the noises or were concentrating on ignoring them. The end result revealed that noises, such as meaningful conversations, had a “stronger effect on levels of subjective annoyance than meaningless noises and led to a greater decline in performance on tasks.”

According lead researcher, Dr. Takahiro Tamesue, this conclusion suggests that, “when designing sound environments in spaces used for cognitive tasks – such as the workplace or schools – it is appropriate to consider not only the sound level, but also meaningfulness of the noise that is likely to be present.”

Tamesue continued his findings by stating that “urrounding conversations often disturb the business operations conducted in such open offices. Because it is difficult to soundproof an open office, a way to mask meaningful speech with some other sound would be of great benefit for achieving a comfortable sound environment.”

In short, while those one-off conversations around the office are great for camaraderie, they are proven to be extremely distracting to those who are not participating. Be aware of your sound level, and if you’re going to have a long, work-related conversation, it is best to use a sound proof room, like an office to avoid interrupting those around you. Not only will people like me thank you, but you’ll also be promoting a more productive environment as well.

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