Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new survey finds that fewer distractions outweigh freebies among young workers.
Companies go out of their way to woo workers with freebies and quirky spaces. Coffee and snacks are somewhat standard. Other businesses go bigger, with neon-orange slides that wind between floors or treehouses and ponds on sprawling campuses. But a new survey asks whether those accommodations are really what workers are after. What if the key to workplace contentment and productivity isn’t more stuff—sleeker desks, a cornucopia of food to fight over—but more quiet?
Oxford Economics, an analysis firm spun out of Oxford University’s business college, reached out to more than 1,200 executives and non-senior employees across industries, including healthcare, retail, manufacturing, financial services, and the government sector. The majority of the respondents (74 percent) reported that they worked in open-plan offices. A handful had private offices, and the rest split their days between home offices, travel, co-working spaces, or a combination of the three. About half of the respondents were Millennials.
Across the board, uninterrupted work time trumped employees’ wish lists. None of the respondents indicated that amenities like free food were most important to them in a work environment. (To be fair, maybe they just didn’t know that treehouses were an option.)
More than half of the employees complained about noise. The researchers found that Millennials were especially likely to voice concern about rising decibels, and to wear headphones to drown out the sound or leave their desks in search of quieter corners. Among the supervisors, 69 percent reported that their spaces had been laid out with noise reduction in mind; 64 percent had engineered the workplace to mute noise intruding from outside of the office, too.
Certainly, some occupations—among them, construction and transportation—are particularly strongly correlated with exposure to excessive noise. Research in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that 30 million U.S. employees are exposed to hazardous sound at work, and the World Health Organization caps the recommended decibels at 85, for a maximum of 8 hours each day. And outside of work hours, the everyday soundscape of the urban environment is troubling, too: Constant rumbles from traffic and sirens are associated with sleep disturbances, cognitive impairment, and an uptick in stress.
But noise can be distracting far below the decibels at which it’s dangerous. Previous research, cited by the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, found that office workers tend to report the most comfort when decibel levels hover between 48 and 52 dB. Whispering clocks in around 30 dB, and casual chatting at 60 dB. For all their touted benefits—promoting collaboration and brainstorming, for example—open floor plans make it hard for some employees to get down to work.
The fact that chatter can be grating and distracting might explain the cottage industry of super conspicuous do-not-disturb signs for the agitated employee. Take, for instance, these portable cubicles or this giant felt helmet that swallows your head and neck so that you don’t have to catch a glimpse of anyone in your peripheral vision. Employers might be well served to invest more in silent zones, the research suggests, and spend less on freebies, lest they find themselves with a horde of angry workers trying their damnedest to ignore each other and get in the zone.