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Science Explains Why You’re More Productive When You Work Around Strangers

Turns out it’s not noise you hate when working, but who’s making the noise.

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BY Jory MacKay - 15 Dec 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

"I don't understand how you can work in coffee shops every day. That would drive me crazy."

I've heard that from more people than I can count since starting my own business. It's gotten to the point where instead of making my case I simple shrug and let the conversation move on.

I understand where these people are coming from. To them, a coffee shop is a noisy place filled with strangers, most of whom aren't working. And while that seems like a recipe for distraction, research shows it's actually better than most other working environments.

Why science says your open plan office is the worst

Today, 80 percent of all offices have an open floor plan, with even more traditional companies moving towards a wall-less workspace. The current love affair with the open office comes from the myth that having your entire workforce open and accessible, you'll somehow create serendipitous connections and increase collaboration and creativity.

As Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey wrote:

"We encourage people to stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity--and people walking by each other teaching new things."

While this is a great idea, that's about all it is.

The truth is that open offices are terrible to work in. Rather than promoting creativity and open conversations, they are constant sources of distraction.

Studies have shown that workers' biggest problem with open or cubicle-filled offices is the unwanted noise. Loud sales calls. Innocent chit chat. Walk-by meetings. They all bring a sound level that makes it hard to concentrate.

Going a step further, new research has discovered that it's not just noise that bothers us, but who's making it. Of all things that distract us from our work, researchers say intermittent speech--hearing small snippets of conversation--has the most negative impact on our ability to concentrate.

Shouldn't a coffee shop be just as bad, if not worse?

Here's where things get interesting.

Yes, a coffee shop is filled with noise and conversation, but it's the right kind of noise for concentration.

When researchers tested four groups of workers in environments with different sound levels, they found that 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.

Not only that, but a meta-analysis of 242 studies found that hearing both sides of a conversation--like two people speaking in a coffee shop--isn't nearly as distracting as being next to someone on a call at work. At a coffee shop, you're surrounded by strangers. So even though the sound level might be higher than you'd like, you're less likely to get pulled into the conversations and distracted.

The lesson here is that silence isn't necessary to do great work. When the right people are making sound, you can still get things done.


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