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Open offices prompt pleas for workplace quiet


The walls have come tumbling down in offices everywhere, but the cubicle dwellers keep putting up new ones. They barricade themselves behind file cabinets. They fortify their partitions with towers of books and papers. Or they follow an "evolving law of technology etiquette," as articulated by Raj Udeshi at the open office he shares with fellow software entrepreneurs in New York City.

"Headphones are the new wall," he said, pointing to the covered ears of his neighbors.

Cubicle culture is already something of a punch line — how many ways can we find to annoy one another all day? — but lately the complaints are being heard by the right people, including managers and social scientists. Companies are redesigning offices, piping in special background noise to improve the acoustics and bringing in engineers to solve volume issues. "Sound masking" has become a buzz phrase.

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of "speech privacy," making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

"In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices," said John Goins, the leader of the survey conducted by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. "The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem."

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."

The original rationale for the open-plan office, aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate. But it turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one’s neighbor.

"Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard," said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices. "Everyone is still experimenting with ways to balance the need for collaboration and the need for privacy."

Take Udeshi’s office, at the NYU-Poly business incubator, a loft with dozens of startup companies housed in low cubicles. The entrepreneurs there say they sometimes get useful ideas from overheard conversations but also find themselves retreating to a bathroom or a broom closet for private chats. When they have to discuss a delicate matter with someone sitting next to them, they often use email or instant messaging.

"You talk to more people in an open office, but I think you have fewer meaningful conversations," said Jonathan McClelland, an energy consultant working in the loft. "You end up getting interrupted a lot by people’s random thoughts."

Despite complaints like this around the world, the open-plan design remains the norm, partly because it is cheaper and partly because many managers believe the plusses outweigh the minuses. It is especially popular in workplaces that require continual informal collaboration, like newsrooms, trading floors and political campaign offices.

At least one famous advocate of the open-plan office, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, is not backing down, and it seems that the wall-free "bullpen" he set up in City Hall has won favor with many who use it.

"The bullpen really allowed free-flowing communication and efficiency," said Edward Skyler, a former deputy mayor who sat several feet from Bloomberg. "It eliminated gatekeepers. You didn’t have to make an appointment to see someone."

Paradoxically, a bustling place like City Hall can be less distracting than a subdued office. Many offices are now pin-drop quiet, thanks to silent ventilation systems, the demise of clattering typewriters and the victory of email over the telephone. With so little background noise, cubicle dwellers cannot help overhearing anyone who does dare to start a conversation.

Researchers at Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health have studied precisely how far those conversations carry and analyzed their effect on the unwilling listener: a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing and other forms of creative work.

"Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory," said Valtteri Hongisto, an acoustician at the institute. He found that workers were more satisfied and performed better at cognitive tasks when speech sounds were masked by a background noise of a gently burbling brook.

Office designers have begun adding soundproofing materials to cubicles and experimenting with layouts that give workers quiet places to retreat. One common tactic is to set aside a small room for conversations and phone calls. But sometimes the room is monopolized by one person who seizes it to work in all day, and other times the room is barely used at all.

Fayard, the NYU researcher, has found that some meeting rooms are avoided because they seem too formal and intimidating.

"People feel self-conscious, as if they’re retreating to the room to hide something or to talk about some problem," she said. "It’s often better to have a mix of proximity and privacy by having an in-between space, like an alcove where people can go for a quick chat."

Another example of that in-between space is the booth, which office designers have recently appropriated from restaurants. At the New York City office of What If, a consulting firm, people who want to chat can retreat to diner-style booths at the edge of the communal open space.

"There’s something very satisfying about a booth," said Barrie Berg, the chief executive of the firm’s U.S. operations. "You can see what’s going around you, and people can see you, but you can still have a private conversation without disturbing anyone around you. We’re a culture of people who work better with a buzz around us, but that buzz needs to be manageable."

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