The open office today... (Image—Flickr CC: Phil Whitehouse)
...and the open office in 1959. (Image—Flickr CC: Seattle Municipal Archives) Not much has changed in 55 years!

The Importance of Quiet and the Consequences of Distraction

Blogger: Allison Arnone, Principal Workplace Strategist | Princeton, NJ, USA
February 17, 2015

I’ve got to admit: there are days when I wish I could lower the “cone of silence” and get some work done in the office!

It’s not that I don’t like conversing with my neighbors or enjoy our open office design, but there are times when the bouquet of interesting distractions around me make it difficult to stay in a groove and crank out some complex analysis. As a workplace design practitioner, I know I’m not alone in my community of office dwellers whose strong need to control acoustic and visual privacy is a priority.

Distraction comes in many forms: visual, acoustic, thermal, lighting… even the smell of microwavable popcorn from the nearby kitchenette is enough to disrupt one’s train of thought. It may seem trivial, but there are real consequences to being distracted. Recent work style studies show that the average knowledge worker spends 25 to 35 percent of their time doing heads down focused work. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine who studies distraction.

A Steelcase study recently published in The Harvard Business Review found that “…98 percent of the most highly engaged employees reported that they had ‘the ability to concentrate easily’ in their workplace and that this attribute is a top factor in their satisfaction.” While collaboration, open workplace and flexibility remain the top three desired workplace attributes, lack of privacy is consistently the top cause of lost efficiency reported by respondents from our Post-occupancy Evaluations. Metrics like these prove that the sanctity of the quiet place needs to be preserved!

With the wave of new workplace trends, technologies and mobile work practices, it’s no wonder that knowledge workers everywhere are coveting privacy in their workplace. We have more to do in less time with higher expectations for better outcomes. All the while, we are expected to increase collaboration with co-workers and share knowledge. With this shift in how work is done comes a corresponding shift in where it is done, which tools are used and who we need to interact with. This is why an office filled with only open bench-style seating doesn’t always cut it for workers who need time and space to focus. The best way forward is to provide a choice of settings for workers to do the variety of activities required during the day.

In addition to designing workplaces, my job includes researching and analyzing the fit between the environment and socio-cultural behavior as well as socio-spatial relationships. Maybe I know too much about this topic to be able to block out the distractions around me?

Read more about the importance of quiet in Retrofit magazine.

Image 1—© Creator: Phil Whitehouse
New office 
Overview of the new office for The Team.
Taken on March 10, 2009​

Image 2—© Creator: ​Seattle Municipal Archives
Engineers working on plans, 1959 
Item 61603, Engineering Department Photographic Negatives (Record Series 2613-07), Seattle Municipal Archives.
Taken on June 23, 1959​

Reader Comments (10)

I think this is a great point and building space for the styles of work, providing the options for space type, AND having the space you need available when you need it is important! (I run into the lack of available space for what I need in the Chicago office a lot, and find myself standing in the hall outside of the office taking a client phone call, not ideal, but the space was not available). We value all the research you do Allison and looking forward to suggestions on best way to solve this fundamental problem for ourselves and our clients.

Thanks Abbie! We must be sure that we are not a "me too" organization who follows trends just because they are popular. Instead we need to design environments that support the success of the individual employee. It will result in not only a better work life for that individual but also for the entire organization. Om!

Well said Allison. Great last line, too! Negotiating the office as a planner, designer and as an office occupant yourself is complex. If we can empower occupants by giving them control over these 'shifts' in work styles through design, office environments can be much more effective. Keep the conversation going!

After reading this I have come to the conclusion I am the distraction.

Allison, I could not agree more.  I had a private office in Conshohocken and when my old office merged with the King of Prussia office in Plymouth Meeting, I was assigned to a cubicle.  My cubicle is in the front of the office, so there is plenty of traffic from folks going to the printer, copier, kitchen and bathrooms.  With over 35 people in the office, that's a lot of distractions in a given day.  I wish I could hang a "do not disturb" sign across my space when I am trying to get something done on a deadline or when I am working on a tedious spread sheet.  While I thoroughly enjoy socializing, I can see where it adversely affects time spent on more productive things.  I believe I am just as much a culprit as I am a victim!  Open workspace concepts look great and I'm sure they are beneficial when collaborating on a project, but when you are working on something complex or trying to have a private conversation on the phone regarding confidential work matters, cubicle living becomes down right unproductive.  I find myself running into offices of folks who are out of town so that I can participate in a conference call and take notes.   Thanks for noticing that not everyone can function at top efficiency in an open concept.


Great discussion. Here at HDR Tampa, during 2014 we went through an office transition from a fairly-open layout for our architecture group to being in cubicles just like the civil engineers who make up much of our floor. I do think that visual privacy has increased. I don't think auditory privacy has changed significantly. I do think that collaboration and socialization have decreased.

As someone else mentioned, the private offices of people who are travelling are often used for phone calls by cubicle dwellers. Some people also used the "breastfeeding room" for phone calls but that's now discouraged. :-)

Wonderful information.  I know I end up talking aloud to myself in my cubicle so that I can stay focused with what I'M working on.  I hate taking a quick phone call from a loved one because I know even those 2 minutes may disturb someone in the cubicles around me (so I try to stop what I'm doing and go outside which means I lose precious time).  When I am on the phone with my boss or colleagues I NEED to stay at my computer and therefore everyone around me will necessarily be disturbed by the sound of my voice while they work. :(

PS - I have no idea what the answer is.

It's proven when people can focus they are more productive.  There are times when collaboration is better and other times when alone time is best depending on the task.  The old way (industrial era) of having an "office" could go away as technology allows us to work remotely.  We could cut down on office space overhead by having "rotations" where individuals work a few days in the office and a couple days outside.  It would also save us on employee commute stress and expense.

I work in a cubicle with high walls, and I can't imagine having them be lower to where I could see the people around me easily. Yes we do some yelling over the wall, but for the most part it actually forces me to get up out of my chair & go talk to someone. I actually think this is a benefit over just disturbing someone else automatically when the thought crosses my mind because I see them right across from me in a low cube wall. We also have "white noise" in our office, which really helps. I can tell the difference when I go to an office that doesn't have it. To block everyone out, I put on big headphones that people can see. To aid communications, Lync is great. I don't think I want folks having more access to me than they already do, otherwise I'd never get anything done.

There are always people that really need an office, particularly those that have to talk on the phone a lot & managers. No one needs to hear their frequent management calls & confidential conversations.


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