The most common critique of open offices is that they are noisy and distracting, and the absence of distractions is one major reason professionals give for preferring to work from home if they can. Yet many freelancers and remote employees also like to work out of crowded, noisy public spaces like coffee shops—so much so that the restaurant/coworking space is now a thing.
So why are we so eager to avoid the din of the office yet so comfortable with that of the cafe? The Telegraph’s Sarah Knapton pores over a new study that claims to have answered that question. The key difference seems to be in how much the background noise means to us; the researchers “found that productive work-related discussions are likely to be far more diverting than random, meaningless noises or overheard sounds of conversation between strangers”:
Dr Takahiro Tamesue, of the Yamaguchi University in Japan, said: “Surrounding 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.” …
The study revealed that noises such as music and meaningful conversation, had a stronger effect on levels of subjective annoyance than meaningless noises and led to a greater decline in performance on tasks.
“The experiments suggest 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,” added Dr Tamesue.