Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


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

Keywords: Acoustics; Auditory distraction; Draught; Open offices; Speech privacy; Visual distraction; Workplace design This paper focuses on various types of distractions in the workplace that may impede employee concentration, as this is a commonly proposed pitfall of open office environments. Here is summarized a selection of findings from recent academic works regarding distractions in the workplace. Research indicates that acoustical distractions are the most troublesome, and that speech intelligibility plays a central role in how distracting a noise is. While there is little past research about visual and other physical sources of distraction, this analysis attempt to provide a basic conceptual understanding of what is known about other types of workplace distraction. Findings of recent studies indicate that visual distractions may be more difficult to recover from than auditory distractions, and that draught is the most distracting of climactic factors in the workplace. Consideration is given to the current processes employed to combat distractions. Special attention is paid to the open office environments that define the typical workplace of today. 1. Introduction The advent of the open office has altered the fundamental structure of what constitutes a typical work environment so greatly it could, quite reasonably, be comparable in magnitude to the industrial revolution of the 18th century. While the nature of the changes in physical workplace environments during these two transitional periods are quite different, they are products of similar economic propulsions towards efficiency: and in keeping with the industrial revolution, today’s shift toward open offices has brought about a myriad of concerns regarding the present efficiency-centric state of workplace environments. Many incongruities between user and workplace environment are obvious, as there are examples everywhere in daily work-life. The ability for an individual to make a phone call without interruption, hold a private meeting, concentrate on a reclusive task, or

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


even simply sit and collect one’s own thoughts are luxuries seldom afforded by a typical open office configuration. At the same time, by literally tearing down walls and removing the barriers between employee’s, it may be possible to increase interorganizational 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 most effective was the “ability to do distraction-free solo work” followed second by “support for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)” (Olson 2002). The question at hand: how can distractions in open offices be eradicated, as to adequately accommodate concentrative business activities while still supporting interaction? This paper focuses on several different types of distractions in the workplace that may impede employee concentration, as this is a commonly proposed pitfall of open office environments. Here is summarized a selection of findings from recent academic works regarding acoustical distractions in the workplace. While there is little past research about visual and other physical sources of distraction, this analysis attempt to provide a basic conceptual understanding of what is known about other types of workplace distraction. Consideration is given to the current processes employed to combat 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 acoustical privacy. This is within reason, as noise pollution, through various forums, has become a major concern in many workplaces. In a recent national survey conducted by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), more than 70 percent of respondents indicated that their productivity would improve if their workplace were less noisy. A similar ASDI survey of corporate executives indicated that only 19 percent were conscious 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)


private executive offices. Open office acoustics is consequently the focus of most research 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 in three distinct workplace types characterized as: offices, laboratories and industries, special survey based indexes were created to evaluate the effects of noise levels on distraction and annoyance. Their finding indicated that sound level (dBB) was correlated to the annoyance index (p < 0.05), but not the distraction index. The opposite is true for predictability, which was correlated to distraction (p < 0.05) but not to annoyance. In a similar study by Sailer and Hassenzhl (2000), findings indicated a strong correlation between subjective loudness and overall annoyance (p < 0.001). A possible reason for the 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 synonymously with “most annoying” (Sailer and Hassenzahl 2000). It has been reported that exposure to high levels of noise (85 to 95 dB(A)) results in 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 combined with other environmental factors (Takahashi, Sasaki et al. 2001).

2.2 Noise variability Vanderhei and Loeb as cited by Kjellberg and Landstrom (1996) concluded that habituating to consistent noise is easier than to variable noise: consequently, constant noise is less annoying overall than variable noise. Therefore a sound with consistent qualities, i.e. frequency, wavelength, intensity, would be much easier to acclimate to than to noise that was in some way dynamic. An example of a consistent noise would be white noise; acoustical masking is discussed further in section 2.8.

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


Spikes in a variable noise can cause annoyance: however, they are less annoying when they are expected (Kiellberg, Landstrom et al. 1996). Consider the case of noise from a paper shredder. It is less bothersome to the operator than to someone at an adjacent workstation. This example demonstrates that control plays a role in how disturbing a variable noise is. Stress related research by Thompson, as quoted by Kiellberg and Landstrom (1996) supports this idea that unpredictable and uncontrollable stressors generally elicit a stronger response than predictable and controllable stressors.

2.3 Differences between speech and other types of noise Colleagues, computers and other office equipment are cited as three of the most problematic noise disturbances in the workplace. Looking more specifically at Sailer and Hassenzahl’s (2000) findings, the attributes that made these noised events most disturbing were identified as. Computers and office equipment – The primary problem with noise disturbances from computer and other office equipment lies is “controllability” followed by “predictability”. Some possible ways to combat the problems of computer and office equipment noise are to locate noisy equipment in an exclusive location, to limit operation to certain times of day, or to upgrade to more quiet technology. Returning to the example of a paper shredder, possible solutions may be to: increasing controllability by putting it in a dedicated copy room, increasing predictability by limiting use until the last hour of the workday, or eliminating the problem altogether by purchasing a new piece of equipment designed for quiet operation. Colleagues - The most confounding aspect of noise from colleagues is the information content of their speech. Past studies by Nemecek, as recounted by Kiellberg and Landstrom (1996) indicate that sound level is a poor predictor of annoyance in situations where irrelevant speech is the primary noise concern. Rather, it appears that speech intelligibility is at the center of how disturbing a speech related noise is.

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


2.4 Speech privacy Speech privacy is based on the articulation index (AI), which is a measurement of the intelligibility of speech for a group of speakers and listeners. A value of 0 indicates that no speech is intelligible, while a value of 1 indicates perfect intelligibility. ASTM E1374-93 defines privacy as speech that is detected but not understood. The AI value for such a situation is typically 0.05 or less (Young 1999). Reducing the transmission of speech related noise is difficult by means of corrective measures, as the acoustical properties of an office are not as easily changed. Other than altering the physical characteristics of a space that affects sound transmission (i.e. acoustical panels, carpeting, and work surface materials) the most prevalent way of dealing with excessive noise in offices is through the introduction of an artificial masking noise. It is still subject to debate whether these artificial masking noises are experienced as an annoyance themselves (Sailer and Hassenzahl 2000).

2.5 Noise related task disturbances In an experiment testing task performance, four acoustical test conditions were applied: speech, office noise with speech, office noise without speech, quiet. Serial recall task performance indicated a significant difference between the four conditions (p < 0.001). It was found that performance in the speech and speech with office noise conditions was significantly worse than in the office noise without speech and quiet conditions. Being as there is no statistical difference between the office noise with speech and the office noise without speech conditions, it is likely that speech is at the center of most distraction. One difference that is somewhat puzzling is that office noise without speech reduces performance on arithmetic tasks, but not on the memorization of pros (Banbury and Berry 1998). It may be that the internal rehearsing of language that is part of memorizing pros, in the absence of irrelevant speech, will drown out background noise disturbances. On the other hand, calculations are more concentrative, and the office noise even without speech may be a distraction. Other research findings indicate that calculation tasks are the most sensitive to noise disturbance. As sound levels increase,

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


the complexity of the task one can complete generally decreases (Kiellberg, Landstrom et al. 1996).

2.6 Individual preferences and the ability to cope with noise Coping is an individuals “resignation with regard to the noise situation at the workplace” (Sailer and Hassenzahl 2000). In other words, coping is an individual’s ability to adjust internally to a noise situation, and thus avoid significant annoyance or distraction during their workday. This is demonstrated by the notion that some noise is simply “an unavoidable consequence of the activity” (Kiellberg, Landstrom et al. 1996) Individual’s who are less adept at coping with noise situations may find it especially difficult to concentrate in open office environments. While it is understood that sensitivity to noise varies among individuals, previous research does little to uncover any characteristic differences of those people who are more easily annoyed by noise than is typical. The only group to show significant differences from the norm are individuals with hearing impairments (Kiellberg, Landstrom et al. 1996).

2.7 Music in the workplace Widespread use of personal stereo systems at work is a relatively new trend. It also is an example of an adaptive noise related coping mechanism. In an experiment with 256 company employees, it was found that performance improved substantially for the sample group listening to music through headphones. Once the headphones were taken away, performance went back down and was no different than that of the control group. Results also indicated that job complexity moderates the relationship between personalstereo use and employee responses. Employees working on what could be deemed as “simple tasks” demonstrated higher levels of productivity and satisfaction than those working on complex tasks (Oldham, Cummings et al. 1995). It has also been suggested by research that introverted individuals are more adversely affected by the presence of music during complex tasks than extroverted individuals (Furnham and Bradley 1997). The primary reason cited for this difference is

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


that introverts have a lower level of optimal cortical arousal (Furnham and Strbac 2002). While some experimental results may point towards personal-stereo systems as a way of helping employees concentrate, there are some important considerations regarding the use of headphones at work. For instance, employees that are wearing headphones may not hear when others try to speak to them, as well as alarms or telephones. Also, prolonged exposure to music that is too loud can cause permanent hearing damage.

2.8 Specifying interiors for acoustical privacy Depending on the particular organization and work type, when building or renovating an office, special care must often be taken to ensure the acoustical privacy of employees. The following guidelines are intended to establish basic “do’s and don’ts” when planning an open office with adequate acoustical privacy. Components - Materials used in open office plans should typically have high noise reduction coefficients (NRC) as to transmit and reflect as little noise as possible. Ceilings – Often considered the most important acoustical element in an open office; ceilings play an important role in absorbing unwanted noise. A NRC rating of at least 0.75 is recommended. The amount of noise reflected off of the ceiling decreases as the number and size of lighting fixtures and HVAC diffusers decreases. Therefore by providing more task lighting and less ceiling fixtures, along with delivering HVAC through smaller diffusers or from places other than the ceiling, it is possible to improve the acoustical qualities of an open office configuration. Partitions - In general, acoustical panels should be no less than 5 feet high and 8 feet wide. This is important, because when an individual is seated, their mouth is approximately 44 inches above the floor. Anything less than 60 inches in panel height provides a direct path from one workstation to another.

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


Orientation - Also very important is the orientation of individuals within workstations, people should be placed in workstations “face-to-back”, as “face-to-face” configurations produce excessive noise because of speech’s highly directional nature. Masking – By emitting a consistent level of noise, it is possible to render speech unintelligible. As mentioned before, when speech is unintelligible it is not nearly as distracting as intelligible speech. Typically acoustical masking is provided through a series of speakers installed approximately every 16 feet in the plenum of an open office. The sound emitted is usually around 42 decibels. Also available are portable systems that are mounted 3 feet above the floor within workstations. These systems allow for individual control of the sound masking device (Young 1999).

3. Visual privacy and distraction Visual privacy and distraction are very real issue in open office environments, yet they are surprisingly unexplored topics of research. Conceptually, it may be easier to attribute distraction to a noise than to a visual stimulus, as one cannot always see what one hears in an open office. Furthermore, seeing and being seen are two very different things.

3.1 Seeing and being seen Being distracted by seeing someone walking by is dissimilar in nature to being distracted because of feeling watched or the possibility of being watched. The concept of transparency and openness in the workplaces is double sided: it can be seen as a breaking down of formality and hierarchy, or the possibility of unlimited discrete surveillance. Panopticon, the legend of a building from which you can see without being seen is far from the reality of today’s open office (Chigot 2003). In almost all cases, visual transparency comes with exposure.

3.2 Recovery from visual distractions Visual distraction is different from auditory distraction, as it elicits different responses from the brain. A mechanism that helps re-orientation task relevant information (RON)

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


that is presumed to occur after long auditory distraction does not occur after long visual distractions (Berti and Schroger 2001). Therefore, it may be more difficult to return to ones thoughts after certain visual distraction than after an auditory distraction. While visual distractions may be less prevalent than auditory distractions in typical open offices, they may cause greater levels of task disturbance when they do occur.

3.3 Misconceptions about glass Modern workplaces encourage visual interaction by increasing visibility between employees. Many offices are using glass partitions as an attempt to provide visual transparency while still separating spaces acoustically. The effects of glass as a method of providing transparency in the workplace, in regard to visual distraction and privacy, are unknown. What is understood about glass are its effects upon office acoustics. And here lies a major problem: glass is a highly reflective surface, a literal acoustical nightmare. Glass also allows for the transmission of sound from one space to another; seldom can complete acoustical separation be obtained through the use of glazed surfaces (Chigot 2003). Glass can also be a major source of glare and cause visual distractions beyond simply being transparent. Careful consideration about the effects on visual and auditory distraction should be considered when deciding to use large amounts of glass in an office environment.

4. Draught, annoyance and distraction In many workplaces, draught is rated the most annoying climactic factor. Draught is characterized by the presence of varying air velocity, and is enumerated by turbulence intensity. There are many sources of draught: open doors, leaky windows, as well as other holes in a building’s envelope. It has been reported that one-third of employees in “large space offices” complain about a draught problem. This can reach 60, even 100 percent in a moderately cold workplace (Griefahn, Kunemund et al. 2002). 4.1 Draught and thermal sensation

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


In an experiment by Toftum and Nielsen (1995), it was concluded that draught was felt most in the head region comprising the face, neck and upper back. Their findings conferred with previous research, as individuals who reported a sensation of feeling slightly cool perceived air movement as uncomfortable. On the other hand, those who reported being closer to a neutral thermal state did not perceive the draught as annoying or uncomfortable. As temperature was changed, so did the number of participants who noticed a draught. It was concluded that both the absolute level of thermal sensation and the perceived level of thermal sensation affect one’s perception of draught (Toftum and Nielsen 1996a). Another study on human responses to air movements uncovered that air temperature was affecting discomfort from draught at the hands and face, but not at the head region (Toftum and Nielsen 1996b). Scientific principles of thermodynamics and human biology also demonstrate that the sensations of temperature and air velocity are interrelated.

5. Conclusion Returning to the study quoted in the introduction, the workplace attribute found to be most effective was the “ability to do distraction-free solo work” followed second by “support for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)” (Olson 2002). After this analysis, it should be evident that meeting these traditionally conflicting requirements with a single environment is by no means an easy task, and requires both ingenuity and careful planning. The openness and transparency of open office environments creates noise, visual distraction, and physical stressors such as draught that can distract employees and decrease performance. At the same time, implementation of open offices continues to grow, as they offer a variety of benefits to organizations. Careful planning for ergonomic considerations is the key to balancing the privacy and transparency needs of individuals in the workplace.

J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004)


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