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The secluded private office is losing popularity in some circles, despite the loss of productivity that comes from open floorplans.

Lately the complaints are being heard by managers and social scientists. Companies are redesigning offices and piping in special background noise to improve the acoustics and hiring engineers to solve volume issues. “Sound masking” is gaining popularity.

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 open offices.

“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.”

The original rationale for the open-plan office, aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, in hopes of enhancing dynamic productivity. But it turns out that too much communication sometimes has the opposite effect; a loss of privacy.

“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.”

“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.

Researchers at Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health have studied just how far those conversations carry and analyzed their effect on the unwilling listener; and found a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, such as 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.

Unfortunately, building out spaces with tall private offices is both more expensive and relatively inflexible. Shorter cubicle panels are often re-configurable, allowing adaptation as the size and composition of the workforce changes.

At the same time, almost no one likes working in cubicles or, worse, spaces with no walls at all. Except, of course, managers and executives. They can more easily see who’s at their desk and monitor what’s going on. Additionally, many think that the lack of physical walls fosters team building. The evidence for this is weak.

Thus far, the response to worker complaints and various studies pointing to the inefficiencies of open floorplans has been to figure out ways to mask the noise.

Open spaces
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