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We’ve got the data to prove it

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If you’ve ever felt your noisy open-plan office makes you cranky and sends your heart racing, our new research shows you aren’t imagining it.

Prior to the pandemic 70% of office-based employees worked in open-plan offices. Employee complaints about this design are rife.

Yet there is little experimental research investigating the effects of office noise on things like cognitive performance, physiological stress , and mood.

The results of our study, in experimentally controlled conditions using heart rate, skin conductivity, and AI facial emotion recognition, shows the effects of that noise are very real.

We’ve found a significant causal relationship between open-plan office noise and physiological stress.

Our results show such noise heightens negative mood by 25% — and these results come from testing participants in a simulated open-plan office for just eight minutes at a time. In a real office, where workers are exposed to noise continuously during the day, we would expect the effects on stress and mood to be even greater.

How we simulated open-plan office noise

We used a simulated office setting with volunteers to compare the effects of typical open-plan office noise to a quieter private office on a range of objective and subjective measures of well-being and performance. Our carefully manipulated soundscapes included people speaking, walking, printing papers, ringing telephones, and keyboard typing noises.

Our study involved observing the same individuals “working” — participants were asked to complete a proof-reading task — under the two noise conditions. We varied the order of the sound tests to avoid bias due to fatigue and training effects.

This “repeated measures experimental design” allowed us to make causal conclusions about the effects of the noise on well-being indicators.

We used sensors to track changes in heart rate and sweat response — both reliable indicators of physiological stress. We used facial emotion recognition software to assess emotional responses. We also had participants self-report their own feeling using a mood scale.

Even after a short exposure, we found a causal relationship between open-plan office noise and both stress and negative mood. Negative mood increased by 25% and sweat response by 34%.

While there was no immediate effect on reduced work performance, it is reasonable to assume such hidden stress over the longer term is detrimental to well-being and productivity.

Credit: The Conversation