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Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace

Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace

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"Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace." by Justin Mardex, Cornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.
"Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace." by Justin Mardex, Cornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.

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Published by: ai212983 on Mar 06, 2009
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05/08/2013

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 J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)
1
Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace.
Justin MardexCornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis
Keywords
: Acoustics; Auditory distraction; Draught; Open offices; Speechprivacy; Visual distraction; Workplace designThis paper focuses on various types of distractions in the workplace thatmay impede employee concentration, as this is a commonly proposedpitfall of open office environments. Here is summarized a selection of findings from recent academic works regarding distractions in theworkplace. Research indicates that acoustical distractions are the mosttroublesome, and that speech intelligibility plays a central role in howdistracting a noise is. While there is little past research about visual andother physical sources of distraction, this analysis attempt to provide abasic conceptual understanding of what is known about other types of workplace distraction. Findings of recent studies indicate that visualdistractions may be more difficult to recover from than auditorydistractions, and that draught is the most distracting of climactic factors inthe workplace. Consideration is given to the current processes employedto combat distractions. Special attention is paid to the open officeenvironments that define the typical workplace of today.
1. Introduction
The advent of the open office has altered the fundamental structure of what constitutes atypical work environment so greatly it could, quite reasonably, be comparable inmagnitude to the industrial revolution of the 18
th
century. While the nature of thechanges in physical workplace environments during these two transitional periods arequite different, they are products of similar economic propulsions towards efficiency: andin keeping with the industrial revolution, today’s shift toward open offices has broughtabout a myriad of concerns regarding the present efficiency-centric state of workplaceenvironments.Many incongruities between user and workplace environment are obvious, asthere are examples everywhere in daily work-life. The ability for an individual to make aphone call without interruption, hold a private meeting, concentrate on a reclusive task, or
 
 J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)
2even simply sit and collect one’s own thoughts are luxuries seldom afforded by a typicalopen office configuration. At the same time, by literally tearing down walls andremoving the barriers between employee’s, it may be possible to increase inter-organizational communication and the subsequent development of knowledge network that knowledge-based organizations have come to rely upon.In a survey of 13,000 office employees, the workplace attribute found to be mosteffective was the “ability to do distraction-free solo work” followed second by “supportfor impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)” (Olson 2002). Thequestion at hand: how can distractions in open offices be eradicated, as to adequatelyaccommodate concentrative business activities while still supporting interaction?This paper focuses on several different types of distractions in the workplace thatmay impede employee concentration, as this is a commonly proposed pitfall of openoffice environments. Here is summarized a selection of findings from recent academicworks regarding acoustical distractions in the workplace. While there is little pastresearch about visual and other physical sources of distraction, this analysis attempt toprovide a basic conceptual understanding of what is known about other types of workplace distraction. Consideration is given to the current processes employed tocombat distractions in open office environments of the contemporary workplace.
2. Acoustical privacy and distraction
The most explored subject area pertaining to distraction in the workplace is acousticalprivacy. This is within reason, as noise pollution, through various forums, has become amajor concern in many workplaces. In a recent national survey conducted by theAmerican Society of Interior Designers (ASID), more than 70 percent of respondentsindicated that their productivity would improve if their workplace were less noisy. Asimilar ASDI survey of corporate executives indicated that only 19 percent wereconscious of any sort of noise problem (Young 1999). These findings are indicative of the striking difference between noise disturbances in open offices plans versus those in
 
 J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)
3private executive offices. Open office acoustics is consequently the focus of mostresearch done on the topic of workplace noise disturbance, and is the focus of this section.
2.1 Noise level
Noise level is the most basic measure for evaluating the relationship between noise,distraction and annoyance. In a study by Kiellberg and Landstrom (1996), conducted inthree distinct workplace types characterized as: offices, laboratories and industries,special survey based indexes were created to evaluate the effects of noise levels ondistraction and annoyance. Their finding indicated that sound level (dBB) was correlatedto the annoyance index (p < 0.05), but not the distraction index. The opposite is true forpredictability, which was correlated to distraction (p < 0.05) but not to annoyance. In asimilar study by Sailer and Hassenzhl (2000), findings indicated a strong correlationbetween subjective loudness and overall annoyance (p < 0.001). A possible reason forthe strength of the relationship is that loudness is the most salient of a noise’s qualities,and is easily judged by participants. The terms “loudest” was often used synonymouslywith “most annoying” (Sailer and Hassenzahl 2000).It has been reported that exposure to high levels of noise (85 to 95 dB(A)) resultsin significantly higher reports of fatigue and irritability (Melamed and Bruhis 1996).Even exposure to a mild level of noise may become a mental stressor when combinedwith other environmental factors (Takahashi, Sasaki et al. 2001).
2.2 Noise variability
Vanderhei and Loeb as cited by Kjellberg and Landstrom (1996) concluded thathabituating to consistent noise is easier than to variable noise: consequently, constantnoise is less annoying overall than variable noise. Therefore a sound with consistentqualities, i.e. frequency, wavelength, intensity, would be much easier to acclimate to thanto noise that was in some way dynamic. An example of a consistent noise would bewhite noise; acoustical masking is discussed further in section 2.8.

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