If you work in an open-plan office and find yourself stressed out by all the noise, you’re not alone. Even before the pandemic, complaints from employees abound regarding this issue.

A study conducted by Dr Libby Sanders from Bond University looks into this very issue. She and her team conducted an experiment to investigate how open-plan office noise impacted employees.

 In an interview on ABC Radio Perth, Dr Sanders mentioned that she worked in the industry before being an academic. Part of her previous work was discussing with people what was wrong with their workplace. She was also involved with designing offices and their effects on people. And she found that there wasn’t a lot of research that shows the causal relationship between stress and office noise.

How The Experiment Was Conducted

Open-plan office noise is stressful: multimodal stress detection in a simulated work environment involved 43 volunteers in a simulated office setting environment. Dr Sanders and her team recorded noises typical in an office environment — ringing phones, printing paper, people talking, and keyboard typing noises. 

The team then asked the volunteers to complete a proofreading task under these noise conditions. Meanwhile, the research team would then observe them working. They used sensors to track the participants’ heart rate and sweat response — both reliable stress indicators. 

The team also used AI software to read their emotional responses and track any mood changes while doing the exercise. They also made the participants self-report their feelings through a mood scale.

The team found that even a short, eight-minute exposure to open-office noises affected the stress levels and mood of the “employees.” In addition, they found that the sweat response of the participants increased by 34%.

“It doesn’t mean someone’s dripping buckets of sweat at their desk, but it’s a really strong indicator that you’re experiencing stress,” Dr Sanders said.

They also found a 25% increase in negative moods. This was based on the self-report that the participants filled out. Dr Sanders said this was a significant finding that could lead to “lots of potentially negative outcomes.” 

Interestingly, the AI they used for facial recognition did not pick up these mood shifts. This prompted Dr Sanders to believe that the people were actually suppressing their emotions in their faces. “We can’t assume by walking around the office and thinking that everyone looks fine that they’re actually okay.”

The researchers didn’t see an immediate effect on the participants’ work performance. However, it is safe to assume that long-term exposure to office noises can cumulatively affect an employee’s well-being and productivity. 

What Can Be Done?

Dr Sanders says employers can address this through acoustic treatment or sound masking technology, like ambient music designed to make people talking less intrusive. Walls and putting up partitions can also help. 

She also suggested noise-cancelling headphones. However, this could make people unapproachable as collaboration is an integral part of a day-to-day work environment. But some people don’t have a choice.

The pandemic and how it changed how we work definitely altered people’s outlook. Having a healthy work environment is now a priority more than ever. 

Surveys show that up to 70% of employees will find new jobs if flexibility is not an option in their current workplace. And while open-plan offices might be the norm for many offices for a long while, the study at least brings to light the issues employees face that could be harmful to them in the long run.

Do you work in an environment conducive to productivity? We’d love to hear about it! Start the conversation with the best IT recruitment consultants in Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Brisbane by emailing office@redwolfrosch.com.au or calling 1300 544 652.