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There’s a reason why it can be easier to work in a Starbucks than in an open office

headphones noise
Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn
Quiet, please.
  • Oliver Staley
By Oliver Staley

Business & culture editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

If you find it easier to work in the din of Starbucks or a bar than around your chattering colleagues in an open office, you’re not alone.

Conversation and music is more distracting than meaningless noise, and leads to a greater decline in work performance, according to a new study from a Japanese sound engineer.

Open offices are beloved by tech startups and other creative types, and were given a boost by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who left his private office to sit amidst his lieutenants at City Hall. But there has been a sustained backlash from workers who complain about a lack of privacy and there’s evidence that employees in open office are more likely to miss work due to illness than their enclosed counterparts. Now open-office dissidents can add overheard noise to their list of grievances.

In the study, from Takahiro Tamesue of the University of Yamaguchi, research subjects tried to complete tasks on computers, like counting the number of times an image flashed, while listening to both unintelligible noise and human speech. The subjects were also asked to rate the noises on how annoying they found them.

The more meaningful noises, like conversations, were the most annoying, and proved to be the most distracting, Tamesue concluded.

Sound proofing open offices often isn’t practical, so it may be necessary to figure out a way to mask meaningful noises, Tamesue said in a press release that accompanied his study. Or maybe companies should just go back to giving their employees offices if they want work to get done.

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