Maybe it was inevitable, but after years of touting the virtues of the open workspace, people who plan and use them appear to be having second thoughts about its effectiveness. Among the biggest drivers behind the mounting backlash are complaints about noise, especially in the form of overheard conversations, ringing phones, and clattering machines.
Given this reaction, it’s not surprising to see a book like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking rise to the status of bestseller, or to learn that Cain and giant office furniture supplier Steelcase have teamed up to develop new prototypes for mitigating sound in the workplace.
But before you jump on the “silence is golden” bandwagon, it might be worth taking a step back to assess the problem with a cooler, more objective eye, especially if you spend some part of your day in creative problem solving. The reason? A modicum of noise has been found to boost idea generation, rather than interfere with it.
I’ll venture to guess that’s not what you imagined. Nor did I, until I came across some research that explained how noise can be transformed from an annoyance to a creativity catalyst.
Noises Off or Noises On?
Credit a team of researchers drawn from several different universities for daring to challenge status quo thinking.
In 2012, the trio published a paper documenting a series of lab experiments they ran to study the effect of noise on creative task performance. Their methods were pretty straightforward: Subjects performed various exercises designed to measure ideational fluency and open-mindedness while a soundtrack played in the background. The track played at either a low (50 decibels), middle (70db), or high volume (85db). A fourth group performed the same exercises without any accompanying soundtrack to establish a baseline from which to measure the collected results.
Contrary to expectation, the people in the quiet sessions did not achieve the top scores. That honor went to subjects exposed to midlevel noise (70db).