Why You Can Focus in a Coffee Shop but Not in Your Open Office
Surveys have shown that workers’ primary complaint with open or cubicle-filled offices is the unwanted noise. However, recent research suggests it’s not the noise itself that’s the problem. Two recent studies have found that the right level of ambient noise triggers our minds to think more creatively. And one of those studies found no difference between people working in a very noisy environment (the equivalent of a motorcycle engine revving) and people working in total silence. Taken together, the lesson here is that the ideal space for focused work is not about freedom from noise, but about freedom from interruption. Finding a space you can hide away in, regardless of how noisy it is, may be the best strategy for making sure you get the important work done.
A few years ago, during a media interview for one of my books, my interviewer said something I still ponder often. Ranting about the level of distraction in his open office, he said, “That’s why I have a membership at the coworking space across the street — so I can focus.”
While I fully support the backlash against open offices, the comment struck me as odd. After all, coworking spaces also typically use an open office layout.
But I recently came across a series of studies examining the effect of sound on the brain that reveals why his strategy works.
From previous research, we know that workers’ primary problem with open or cubicle-filled offices is the unwanted noise.
But new research shows that it may not be the sound itself that distracts us…it may be who is making it. In fact, some level of office banter in the background might actually benefit our ability to do creative tasks, provided we don’t get drawn into the conversation. Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise. That’s why you might focus really well in a noisy coffee shop, but barely be able to concentrate in a noisy office.
One study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that the right level of ambient noise triggers our minds to think more creatively. The researchers, led by Ravi Mehta of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, examined various levels of noise on participants as they completed tests of creative thinking.
Participants were randomized into four groups and everyone was asked to complete a Remote Associates Test (a commonly used measurement that judges creative thinking by asking test-takers to find the relationship between a series of words that, as first glance, appear unrelated). Depending on the group, participants were exposed to various noise levels in the background, from total silence to 50 decibels, 70 decibels, and 85 decibels. The differences between most of the groups were statistically insignificant; however, the participants in the 70 decibels group (those exposed to a level of noise similar to background chatter in a coffee shop) significantly outperformed the other groups. Since the effects were small, this may suggest that our creative thinking doesn’t differ that much in response to total silence and 85 decibels of background noise — the equivalent of a loud garbage disposal or a quiet motorcycle. Since none of us presumably want to work next to a garbage disposal or motorcycle, I found this surprising.
But since the results at 70 decibels were significant, the study also suggests that the right level of background noise — not too loud and not total silence — may actually boost one’s creative thinking ability. The right level of background noise may disrupt our normal patterns of thinking just enough to allow our imaginations to wander, without making it impossible to focus. This type of “distracted focus” appears to be the optimal state for working on creative tasks. As the authors write, “Getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.”
In another study, researchers used frontal lobe electroencephalographic (EEG) machines to study the brain waves of participants as they completed tests of creativity while exposed to various sound environments. The researchers found statistically significant changes in creativity scores and a connection between those scores and certain brain waves. As in the previous study, a certain level of white noise proved the ideal background sound for creative tasks.
So why do so many of us hate our open offices? The quiet chatter of colleagues and the gentle thrum of the HVAC should help us focus. The problem may be that, in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus. Indeed, the EEG researchers found that face-to-face interactions, conversations, and other disruptions negatively affect the creative process. By contrast, a coworking space or a coffee shop provides a certain level of ambient noise while also providing freedom from interruptions.
Taken together, the lesson here is that the ideal space for focused work is not about freedom from noise, but about freedom from interruption. Finding a space you can hide away in, regardless of how noisy it is, may be the best strategy for making sure you get the important work done.
On – 18 Oct, 2017 By David Burkus