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Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 1

Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace.

Justin Mardex
Cornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis

Keywords: Acoustics; Auditory distraction; Draught; Open offices; Speech

privacy; Visual distraction; Workplace design

This paper focuses on various types of distractions in the workplace that

may impede employee concentration, as this is a commonly proposed
pitfall of open office environments. Here is summarized a selection of
findings from recent academic works regarding distractions in the
workplace. Research indicates that acoustical distractions are the most
troublesome, and that speech intelligibility plays a central role in how
distracting a noise is. While there is little past research about visual and
other physical sources of distraction, this analysis attempt to provide a
basic conceptual understanding of what is known about other types of
workplace distraction. Findings of recent studies indicate that visual
distractions may be more difficult to recover from than auditory
distractions, and that draught is the most distracting of climactic factors in
the workplace. Consideration is given to the current processes employed
to combat distractions. Special attention is paid to the open office
environments that define the typical workplace of today.

1. Introduction
The advent of the open office has altered the fundamental structure of what constitutes a
typical work environment so greatly it could, quite reasonably, be comparable in
magnitude to the industrial revolution of the 18th century. While the nature of the
changes in physical workplace environments during these two transitional periods are
quite different, they are products of similar economic propulsions towards efficiency: and
in keeping with the industrial revolution, today’s shift toward open offices has brought
about a myriad of concerns regarding the present efficiency-centric state of workplace
Many incongruities between user and workplace environment are obvious, as
there are examples everywhere in daily work-life. The ability for an individual to make a
phone call without interruption, hold a private meeting, concentrate on a reclusive task, or
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 2

even simply sit and collect one’s own thoughts are luxuries seldom afforded by a typical
open office configuration. At the same time, by literally tearing down walls and
removing the barriers between employee’s, it may be possible to increase inter-
organizational communication and the subsequent development of knowledge network
that knowledge-based organizations have come to rely upon.
In a survey of 13,000 office employees, the workplace attribute found to be most
effective was the “ability to do distraction-free solo work” followed second by “support
for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)” (Olson 2002). The
question at hand: how can distractions in open offices be eradicated, as to adequately
accommodate concentrative business activities while still supporting interaction?
This paper focuses on several different types of distractions in the workplace that
may impede employee concentration, as this is a commonly proposed pitfall of open
office environments. Here is summarized a selection of findings from recent academic
works regarding acoustical distractions in the workplace. While there is little past
research about visual and other physical sources of distraction, this analysis attempt to
provide a basic conceptual understanding of what is known about other types of
workplace distraction. Consideration is given to the current processes employed to
combat distractions in open office environments of the contemporary workplace.

2. Acoustical privacy and distraction

The most explored subject area pertaining to distraction in the workplace is acoustical
privacy. This is within reason, as noise pollution, through various forums, has become a
major concern in many workplaces. In a recent national survey conducted by the
American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), more than 70 percent of respondents
indicated that their productivity would improve if their workplace were less noisy. A
similar ASDI survey of corporate executives indicated that only 19 percent were
conscious of any sort of noise problem (Young 1999). These findings are indicative of
the striking difference between noise disturbances in open offices plans versus those in
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 3

private executive offices. Open office acoustics is consequently the focus of most
research done on the topic of workplace noise disturbance, and is the focus of this section.

2.1 Noise level

Noise level is the most basic measure for evaluating the relationship between noise,
distraction and annoyance. In a study by Kiellberg and Landstrom (1996), conducted in
three distinct workplace types characterized as: offices, laboratories and industries,
special survey based indexes were created to evaluate the effects of noise levels on
distraction and annoyance. Their finding indicated that sound level (dBB) was correlated
to the annoyance index (p < 0.05), but not the distraction index. The opposite is true for
predictability, which was correlated to distraction (p < 0.05) but not to annoyance. In a
similar study by Sailer and Hassenzhl (2000), findings indicated a strong correlation
between subjective loudness and overall annoyance (p < 0.001). A possible reason for
the strength of the relationship is that loudness is the most salient of a noise’s qualities,
and is easily judged by participants. The terms “loudest” was often used synonymously
with “most annoying” (Sailer and Hassenzahl 2000).
It has been reported that exposure to high levels of noise (85 to 95 dB(A)) results
in significantly higher reports of fatigue and irritability (Melamed and Bruhis 1996).
Even exposure to a mild level of noise may become a mental stressor when combined
with other environmental factors (Takahashi, Sasaki et al. 2001).

2.2 Noise variability

Vanderhei and Loeb as cited by Kjellberg and Landstrom (1996) concluded that
habituating to consistent noise is easier than to variable noise: consequently, constant
noise is less annoying overall than variable noise. Therefore a sound with consistent
qualities, i.e. frequency, wavelength, intensity, would be much easier to acclimate to than
to noise that was in some way dynamic. An example of a consistent noise would be
white noise; acoustical masking is discussed further in section 2.8.
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 4

Spikes in a variable noise can cause annoyance: however, they are less annoying
when they are expected (Kiellberg, Landstrom et al. 1996). Consider the case of noise
from a paper shredder. It is less bothersome to the operator than to someone at an
adjacent workstation. This example demonstrates that control plays a role in how
disturbing a variable noise is. Stress related research by Thompson, as quoted by
Kiellberg and Landstrom (1996) supports this idea that unpredictable and uncontrollable
stressors generally elicit a stronger response than predictable and controllable stressors.

2.3 Differences between speech and other types of noise

Colleagues, computers and other office equipment are cited as three of the most
problematic noise disturbances in the workplace. Looking more specifically at Sailer and
Hassenzahl’s (2000) findings, the attributes that made these noised events most
disturbing were identified as.

Computers and office equipment – The primary problem with noise disturbances from
computer and other office equipment lies is “controllability” followed by “predictability”.
Some possible ways to combat the problems of computer and office equipment noise are
to locate noisy equipment in an exclusive location, to limit operation to certain times of
day, or to upgrade to more quiet technology. Returning to the example of a paper
shredder, possible solutions may be to: increasing controllability by putting it in a
dedicated copy room, increasing predictability by limiting use until the last hour of the
workday, or eliminating the problem altogether by purchasing a new piece of equipment
designed for quiet operation.

Colleagues - The most confounding aspect of noise from colleagues is the information
content of their speech. Past studies by Nemecek, as recounted by Kiellberg and
Landstrom (1996) indicate that sound level is a poor predictor of annoyance in situations
where irrelevant speech is the primary noise concern. Rather, it appears that speech
intelligibility is at the center of how disturbing a speech related noise is.
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 5

2.4 Speech privacy

Speech privacy is based on the articulation index (AI), which is a measurement of the
intelligibility of speech for a group of speakers and listeners. A value of 0 indicates that
no speech is intelligible, while a value of 1 indicates perfect intelligibility. ASTM E-
1374-93 defines privacy as speech that is detected but not understood. The AI value for
such a situation is typically 0.05 or less (Young 1999).
Reducing the transmission of speech related noise is difficult by means of
corrective measures, as the acoustical properties of an office are not as easily changed.
Other than altering the physical characteristics of a space that affects sound transmission
(i.e. acoustical panels, carpeting, and work surface materials) the most prevalent way of
dealing with excessive noise in offices is through the introduction of an artificial masking
noise. It is still subject to debate whether these artificial masking noises are experienced
as an annoyance themselves (Sailer and Hassenzahl 2000).

2.5 Noise related task disturbances

In an experiment testing task performance, four acoustical test conditions were applied:
speech, office noise with speech, office noise without speech, quiet. Serial recall task
performance indicated a significant difference between the four conditions (p < 0.001). It
was found that performance in the speech and speech with office noise conditions was
significantly worse than in the office noise without speech and quiet conditions. Being as
there is no statistical difference between the office noise with speech and the office noise
without speech conditions, it is likely that speech is at the center of most distraction.
One difference that is somewhat puzzling is that office noise without speech
reduces performance on arithmetic tasks, but not on the memorization of pros (Banbury
and Berry 1998). It may be that the internal rehearsing of language that is part of
memorizing pros, in the absence of irrelevant speech, will drown out background noise
disturbances. On the other hand, calculations are more concentrative, and the office noise
even without speech may be a distraction. Other research findings indicate that
calculation tasks are the most sensitive to noise disturbance. As sound levels increase,
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 6

the complexity of the task one can complete generally decreases (Kiellberg, Landstrom et
al. 1996).

2.6 Individual preferences and the ability to cope with noise

Coping is an individuals “resignation with regard to the noise situation at the workplace”
(Sailer and Hassenzahl 2000). In other words, coping is an individual’s ability to adjust
internally to a noise situation, and thus avoid significant annoyance or distraction during
their workday. This is demonstrated by the notion that some noise is simply “an
unavoidable consequence of the activity” (Kiellberg, Landstrom et al. 1996)
Individual’s who are less adept at coping with noise situations may find it
especially difficult to concentrate in open office environments. While it is understood
that sensitivity to noise varies among individuals, previous research does little to uncover
any characteristic differences of those people who are more easily annoyed by noise than
is typical. The only group to show significant differences from the norm are individuals
with hearing impairments (Kiellberg, Landstrom et al. 1996).

2.7 Music in the workplace

Widespread use of personal stereo systems at work is a relatively new trend. It also is an
example of an adaptive noise related coping mechanism. In an experiment with 256
company employees, it was found that performance improved substantially for the
sample group listening to music through headphones. Once the headphones were taken
away, performance went back down and was no different than that of the control group.
Results also indicated that job complexity moderates the relationship between personal-
stereo use and employee responses. Employees working on what could be deemed as
“simple tasks” demonstrated higher levels of productivity and satisfaction than those
working on complex tasks (Oldham, Cummings et al. 1995).
It has also been suggested by research that introverted individuals are more
adversely affected by the presence of music during complex tasks than extroverted
individuals (Furnham and Bradley 1997). The primary reason cited for this difference is
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 7

that introverts have a lower level of optimal cortical arousal (Furnham and Strbac 2002).
While some experimental results may point towards personal-stereo systems as a way of
helping employees concentrate, there are some important considerations regarding the
use of headphones at work. For instance, employees that are wearing headphones may
not hear when others try to speak to them, as well as alarms or telephones. Also,
prolonged exposure to music that is too loud can cause permanent hearing damage.

2.8 Specifying interiors for acoustical privacy

Depending on the particular organization and work type, when building or renovating an
office, special care must often be taken to ensure the acoustical privacy of employees.
The following guidelines are intended to establish basic “do’s and don’ts” when planning
an open office with adequate acoustical privacy.

Components - Materials used in open office plans should typically have high noise
reduction coefficients (NRC) as to transmit and reflect as little noise as possible.

Ceilings – Often considered the most important acoustical element in an open office;
ceilings play an important role in absorbing unwanted noise. A NRC rating of at least
0.75 is recommended. The amount of noise reflected off of the ceiling decreases as the
number and size of lighting fixtures and HVAC diffusers decreases. Therefore by
providing more task lighting and less ceiling fixtures, along with delivering HVAC
through smaller diffusers or from places other than the ceiling, it is possible to improve
the acoustical qualities of an open office configuration.

Partitions - In general, acoustical panels should be no less than 5 feet high and 8 feet
wide. This is important, because when an individual is seated, their mouth is
approximately 44 inches above the floor. Anything less than 60 inches in panel height
provides a direct path from one workstation to another.
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Orientation - Also very important is the orientation of individuals within workstations,

people should be placed in workstations “face-to-back”, as “face-to-face” configurations
produce excessive noise because of speech’s highly directional nature.

Masking – By emitting a consistent level of noise, it is possible to render speech

unintelligible. As mentioned before, when speech is unintelligible it is not nearly as
distracting as intelligible speech. Typically acoustical masking is provided through a
series of speakers installed approximately every 16 feet in the plenum of an open office.
The sound emitted is usually around 42 decibels. Also available are portable systems that
are mounted 3 feet above the floor within workstations. These systems allow for
individual control of the sound masking device (Young 1999).

3. Visual privacy and distraction

Visual privacy and distraction are very real issue in open office environments, yet they
are surprisingly unexplored topics of research. Conceptually, it may be easier to attribute
distraction to a noise than to a visual stimulus, as one cannot always see what one hears
in an open office. Furthermore, seeing and being seen are two very different things.

3.1 Seeing and being seen

Being distracted by seeing someone walking by is dissimilar in nature to being distracted
because of feeling watched or the possibility of being watched. The concept of
transparency and openness in the workplaces is double sided: it can be seen as a breaking
down of formality and hierarchy, or the possibility of unlimited discrete surveillance.
Panopticon, the legend of a building from which you can see without being seen is far
from the reality of today’s open office (Chigot 2003). In almost all cases, visual
transparency comes with exposure.

3.2 Recovery from visual distractions

Visual distraction is different from auditory distraction, as it elicits different responses
from the brain. A mechanism that helps re-orientation task relevant information (RON)
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that is presumed to occur after long auditory distraction does not occur after long visual
distractions (Berti and Schroger 2001). Therefore, it may be more difficult to return to
ones thoughts after certain visual distraction than after an auditory distraction. While
visual distractions may be less prevalent than auditory distractions in typical open offices,
they may cause greater levels of task disturbance when they do occur.

3.3 Misconceptions about glass

Modern workplaces encourage visual interaction by increasing visibility between
employees. Many offices are using glass partitions as an attempt to provide visual
transparency while still separating spaces acoustically. The effects of glass as a method
of providing transparency in the workplace, in regard to visual distraction and privacy,
are unknown. What is understood about glass are its effects upon office acoustics. And
here lies a major problem: glass is a highly reflective surface, a literal acoustical
nightmare. Glass also allows for the transmission of sound from one space to another;
seldom can complete acoustical separation be obtained through the use of glazed surfaces
(Chigot 2003). Glass can also be a major source of glare and cause visual distractions
beyond simply being transparent. Careful consideration about the effects on visual and
auditory distraction should be considered when deciding to use large amounts of glass in
an office environment.

4. Draught, annoyance and distraction

In many workplaces, draught is rated the most annoying climactic factor. Draught is
characterized by the presence of varying air velocity, and is enumerated by turbulence
intensity. There are many sources of draught: open doors, leaky windows, as well as
other holes in a building’s envelope. It has been reported that one-third of employees in
“large space offices” complain about a draught problem. This can reach 60, even 100
percent in a moderately cold workplace (Griefahn, Kunemund et al. 2002).
4.1 Draught and thermal sensation
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 10

In an experiment by Toftum and Nielsen (1995), it was concluded that draught was felt
most in the head region comprising the face, neck and upper back. Their findings
conferred with previous research, as individuals who reported a sensation of feeling
slightly cool perceived air movement as uncomfortable. On the other hand, those who
reported being closer to a neutral thermal state did not perceive the draught as annoying
or uncomfortable. As temperature was changed, so did the number of participants who
noticed a draught. It was concluded that both the absolute level of thermal sensation and
the perceived level of thermal sensation affect one’s perception of draught (Toftum and
Nielsen 1996a). Another study on human responses to air movements uncovered that air
temperature was affecting discomfort from draught at the hands and face, but not at the
head region (Toftum and Nielsen 1996b). Scientific principles of thermodynamics and
human biology also demonstrate that the sensations of temperature and air velocity are

5. Conclusion
Returning to the study quoted in the introduction, the workplace attribute found to be
most effective was the “ability to do distraction-free solo work” followed second by
“support for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)” (Olson
2002). After this analysis, it should be evident that meeting these traditionally conflicting
requirements with a single environment is by no means an easy task, and requires both
ingenuity and careful planning. The openness and transparency of open office
environments creates noise, visual distraction, and physical stressors such as draught that
can distract employees and decrease performance. At the same time, implementation of
open offices continues to grow, as they offer a variety of benefits to organizations.
Careful planning for ergonomic considerations is the key to balancing the privacy and
transparency needs of individuals in the workplace.
J. Mardex / Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace (2004) 11

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