Can You Balance Collaboration, Efficiency, and Noise-Related Stress?
In March 2020, companies were forced to quickly pivot where and how employees worked in an effort to keep them safe from the spreading COVID-19 virus. Employees went from seeing and conversing with their colleagues five days a week to seeing them occasionally in a pixelated Zoom meeting. Despite the circumstances, many employees’ productivity was boosted while working from home. Now, as workplaces gradually bring employees back to their brick-and-mortar spaces, companies must figure out how to maintain the efficiency many found while working from home while also balancing collaboration.
Working from home — productivity at the cost of social connections
A recent study looked at how Italian workers who transitioned to remote work due to COVID-19 perceived noise in their home environment. Almost 2,000 participants completed the questionnaire and over half reported noise sensitivity. As a result, they had reduced concentration and difficulty relaxing (1). Noise from the neighborhood and roommates were top irritants because they distracted participants from finishing tasks. Studies have also found that once distracted, it can take up to 20 minutes to regain concentration on complex tasks, and errors increase when work is resumed (2).
While working from home caused distractions for some, others found their productivity boosted while working remotely. Research found that, on average, those who work from home not only spend 10 minutes less a day being unproductive but are 47% more productive (3). This productivity is likely due to a quieter working environment.
A study examining 16,000 Chinese employees working from home over nine months attributed the 13% boost in productivity to a quieter working space. Not only did the participants work more minutes per shift, but they also took fewer breaks and had fewer sick days (4).
However, social isolation is often found on the other side of the remote working coin — a factor that can both increase stress and harm productivity. An online survey showed that when employees experienced stress related to social isolation, it led to decreased remote work productivity and satisfaction (5).
While the quieter at-home environment was a boon to productivity for some, others found the lack of social connectivity detrimental to their work. Similar factors play into the benefits and drawbacks of an open and closed office plan.
Workplace layouts: open to collaboration but closed to privacy
Social environments influence our ability to be proactive and motivated, and workplace success is often driven by how well employees interact with one another (6). Research has found that organizations that facilitate more frequent and high-quality contact between workers have improved communication and collaboration on tasks, job satisfaction, and social support (6). But despite what open office advocates claim, the layout doesn’t necessarily equate to or encourage collaboration.
While collaboration is important, research shows that when employees can’t concentrate, they communicate less and may even become indifferent to their coworkers (6). In fact, a 2018 study found employees in open offices spend 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, and email and messaging increased to over 67% (7). A poor office design that leaves employees with little privacy can have the unintended consequence of increasing distraction and straining workplace relationships (6).
A case study that administered questionnaires, found that respondents working in open-plan offices had the lowest satisfaction and productivity score. However, the survey also found that employees in closed private offices had high levels of dissatisfaction with aspects of social interaction within the work environment (8).
“Open plan work environments tend to limit employee’s ability to concentrate on their tasks,” the study states, adding that rather than encouraging interaction, the layout motivates employees to socially retreat from their colleagues and interact over email and instant messages instead (8).
While the privacy provided by the walls or cubicles surrounding an employee in a closed office plan may boost efficiency and productivity, there is also evidence that some employees find spending several hours in this layout oppressive. Other potential turnoffs of the closed format include higher costs, reduced supervision, and fewer opportunities to engage with coworkers (8).
A study examining how different office types impacted cognitive performance included 113 employees from five offices: four relocated into an activity-based workplace. Before relocation, those working in an open office performed significantly worse than in cell offices, which had a lower noise level. After relocation, employees performed worse in the active zone — which had no noise restrictions — compared to all other work areas (9). When workers switched to a quiet zone, cognitive performance went up by 16.9%, and shifting to individual rooms increased performance by 21.9%.
“Consistently, the most pronounced problem encountered in offices wherein employees share their work area with others are environmental distractions, such as the distortions that come from task-unrelated background sound,” the study states, noting that the most disturbing noise is typically from colleagues talking in the background and phones ringing (9).
“Further, shifting between different shared open-plan areas, such as the active zone to a quiet zone, improved performance significantly,” it states.
Overall, the study demonstrated that for tasks requiring concentration, employees performed best in cell offices and worst in open-plan areas, emphasizing the importance of quiet spaces with few background distractions. The study recommends conveying the positive impact switching work areas can have on workers’ performance and encouraging individuals to move to a suitable area when the task requires it (9).
Finding the right balance: open to privacy and collaboration
The process of collaboration isn’t just done in groups but requires thoughtful periods where individuals can generate ideas on their own before sharing and building these ideas as a group (10).
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) says companies have been trying for decades to find the balance between public and private workspaces that support collaboration. In 1980, researchers found that 85% of U.S. employees needed a space to concentrate without distraction — as a result, walled cubicles took over the landscape. However, by the late 1990s, employees were reporting the need for more interaction, and the open office came into favor. Now, the pendulum is swinging back to the privacy side (10).
Research shows that finding the balance between the two doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all design. Workplaces should strive to provide hybrid options for employees to work effectively (6) — an open area for collaboration and quiet spaces for employees working on tasks that demand concentration.
According to HBR, two design models accommodate privacy and collaboration. The first, the distributed model, blends spaces that support concentration into an area for individual and group work. Whereas the zone model designates specific locations within the workplace as private, quiet zones — in this design, the private zones are physically separated from the open areas, which can help manage noise (10).
As employees return to the office, companies may find success in providing environments with various spaces people can choose to work from. One of the most important aspects of employee concentration and productivity is providing a quiet area. Auditory privacy via acoustic treatments like F-Sorb’s wall and ceiling panels can help achieve this. The durable and easy-to-clean panels can absorb sound, creating a space where employees can concentrate in a quiet environment that doesn’t need to be boxed off and isolated.
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.
Puglisi, G., Di Blasio, S., Shtrepi, L., Astolfi, A. (2021). Remote Working in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Results From a Questionnaire on the Perceived Noise Annoyance. Frontiers. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fbuil.2021.688484
Addressing Workplace Acoustics In The Open Office. (n.d). Retrieved February 2, 2022 from https://www.workdesign.com/2016/11/acoustics-open-office/
Surprising working from Home Productivity Statistics. (September 13, 2022). Apollo Technical. Retrieved from https://www.apollotechnical.com/working-from-home-productivity-statistics/
Bloom, L., Liang, J., Roberts, J. et al. (2013). Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment. Stanford Business.
Toscano F, Zappalà S. (2020) Social Isolation and Stress as Predictors of Productivity Perception and Remote Work Satisfaction during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Concern about the Virus in a Moderated Double Mediation. Sustainability. 12(23):9804. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12239804
Sander, L. A new study should be the final nail for open-plan offices. (July17, 2018). The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/a-new-study-should-be-the-final-nail-for-open-plan-offices-99756
Bernstein, E., Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. doi: https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239
Muzaffar, Adrianna & Noor, P & Mahmud, N & Mohamed Noor, Norlina. (2020). A Comparative Study on The Impacts of Open Plan and Closed Office Layout Towards. 49-58.
Jahncke H, Hallman DM. (2020) Objective measures of cognitive performance in activity based workplaces and traditional office types. J Environ Psychol. 72:101503. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101503. Epub 2020 Oct 8. PMID: 33052159; PMCID: PMC7543894.
Congdon, C., Flynn, D., Redman, M. (October, 2014). Balancing “We” and “Me”: The Best Collaborative Spaces also Support Solitude. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2014/10/balancing-we-and-me-the-best-collaborative-spaces-also-support-solitude