Office work: sounds good

I’ve been a bit inward focused the last few days. Maybe that’s why Cognitive Daily’s post about sounds in the office was so enjoyable. (The full title: Office noise: Are your homicidal thoughts about your noisy officemate justified?)

Dave Munger examines various studies dealing with noise in the workplace. Most of them looked at industrial settings. That makes sense; I spent a summer working at Chrysler’s Warren Stamping plant, and it was surprising, when I got off work, how quiet Mound Road sounded.

“…in general, when people can’t control the noise in their environment, they are less willing to persist on a difficult task.”

The post deals mostly with the study of clerical workers coping with random noise — typing, voices, doors opening and closing. Not all that surprisingly, people who couldn’t control much of the noise around them have higher stress levels and lower productivity.

(Since lately I’m working from my home office, the noise level is pretty much up to me, except on lawn-mowing day, so that can’t be my excuse.)

Almost as interesting to read is the post are the comments that follow it, including this gem:

Interesting choice of words in the title. Have y’all spent quality time in a cube farm? ;) If I had to go back, my choice of ‘natural masking’ device would be a gas-powered leafblower, or perhaps a chainsaw.

I enjoyed the following trip in the time machine.  Notice how Remington Typewriter centers its pitch on how much noise the secretary is making.  You know, she’s the one doing work.

“Stop and listen for a minute. How noisy is your office and who’s making all the noise? Chances are the greatest noise source of all is your secretary. Her clattering typewriter not only makes a lot of noise, but forces the whole level of office conversation to rise above it contributing more to the general office din. How does this noise affect you and everyone else in your offices…”

I’ve worked on assignment more than once at locations that used PA systems to contact individual employees. At the pharmaceutical plant, perhaps that made sense — not everyone had a cell phone, but everyone could dial a paging number and ask Phil Mackenzie to dial 3456. But at the office of a computer services company, with thirty or forty people working in cubicles, why have a voice from heaven every ten minutes, “Colleen Burton, line 3… Colleen Burton, line 3?”

Vintage Remington ad and caption by anniebee / Anne Bowerman.

4 thoughts on “Office work: sounds good

  1. When I was writing this post, I couldn’t help thinking of a former coworker who favored clunky jewelry. She also couldn’t type well, and some days the thump thumb of chunky bracelets against her desk was enough to make me think the Cistercians have it right after all.

    After a while, I bought a little CD player, and when I needed to concentrate, I’d put string quartets or something on. My coworker, who popped into my cubicle a lot, wouldn’t interrupt me if I had the headphones on, unless it was something serious (like the boss being angry with her). So after a while I left them on even if the music wasn’t playing.

    At the end of a particularly grueling project, the boss gave me a token gift: ten yards or so of yellow plastic tape.

  2. Just reading the article has resulted in a rise in my epinephrine level simply because the study is grounded in stereotypical social norms around women’s work. Forty women typing, filing, and doing simple accounting? Who the ‘eff types anymore?
    Anyway, I’ve always been bothered by noise. I once worked with a real chatterbox. It was kind of like the dripping faucet. At first it’s just a minor annoyance but it gets worse over time until listen to the person breath is bothersome. I always wanted an air horn at my desk. Instead, I opted for my iPod (which created an HR meeting or two BTW).

  3. You know, Janet, I hadn’t focused on the “forty clerical workers, all women.” I’m guessing the researchers hired temps (as my company did, years ago, to try out job aids we were developing for an application). I’m surprised that today you could hire 40 people like that and have them all be women.

    The inability to control the environment — or the parts of it I care about — is a sure path to frustration for me. I recently worked at a client location with the PA-paging I mentioned. When no one was getting paged, you heard one of those ghastly pop / lite-rock radio stations. That didn’t much matter to people working on the manufacturing lines (they had a hard time hearing the pages if the machinery was running). For me, though, it was almost as big a boost to my productivity as the woofer/tweeter combination of the golden retriever and Jack Russell whose owners used to leave them outside all the ever-lovin’ day while I worked from home. BARK yip BARK yip yip BARK BARK yip.

    Another horror comes to mind: speaker phones in a cubicle. I wanted to take up a collection for one downsized manager (kept her staff, lost her private office) so she could buy a $30 headset and spare us at least the other half of the conversation.

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