Thursday, October 29, 2009

Open Space in Green Buildings Reduces Productivity?

Because of the focus on natural light and ventilation, green buildings are typically more “open” than traditional office space, meaning there are fewer full-height walls and and more flexible open areas instead. Many claim that this general trend has helped reduce energy use and building material consumption, but not necessarily productivity when it comes to acoustics or visual distractions. For more collaborative work, ambient noise or a general "buzz" around the office is good for productivity. However, employees trying to perform tasks that require a high degree of concentration may lose productivity due to noise in their work area.

My own view is that acoustics can be very subjective. For example, my husband likes to fall asleep to the sound of television, whereas I find television too stimulating and cannot go to sleep with it on. Some of my colleagues love to listen to music to drown out background noise... I find that even more distracting than tuning out what is happening around me. Maybe having a 3-year-old helps with this, I'm not sure. In any case, this recent push on companies to become more collaborative and more green has increased the amount of open space and now we're all finding our limits to what we can tollerate in terms of acoustical distraction.

Interestingly, when employees have some degree of self-control over the noise in their environment, they are less distracted by it (A. Kjellberg, U. Landstrom, M. Tesarz, L. Soderberg, and E. Akerlund “The Effects Of Nonphysical Noise Characteristics, Ongoing Tasks and Noise Sensitivity on Annoyance and Distraction Due to Noise at Work,” 1996). Maybe this explains my colleagues' headphones.

But it's not just noise. Research in open offices show that visual distractions associated with the continual movement of people has created high levels of dissatisfaction. This has lead to the widesrpead use of ever-more high partitions (cubicles). Although partitions reduce visual distractions, they have not adequately reduced the noise distractions (J. Heerwagen, “Investing in People: The Social Benefits to Sustainable Design,” 2006).

So what are companies doing about the constant complaints about their open offices? The solution for many organizations is to provide a mix of workplaces for their employees to move around in during the day, some of which have acoustic and visual privacy (supporting heads-down work). Other organizations have in invested in sound masking or have building smaller open areas (not just a sea of cubes) in order to minimise noise disruption.

My own view is that we put too much pressure on the physical office space to reduce acoustic issues and not enough focus on behavioral changes, policies and good technology to solve the problems we encounter. I'd rather not give up my windows for a sound-proof dark room... thank you very much.

This 5-minute Julian Treasure TED video is not exactly accurate in my view (Treasure claims noise in an open-office environment reduces productivity by 66 %), but he makes a good point about the power of noise! Check out his talk, “Four Ways Sound Affects Us.”


Amy said...

Hi Greenette!

Thanks so much for your blog. I am writing to invite you to a free sneak-preview webinar on Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 12:30pm EST about green commercial building by Robert Watson, the “Father of LEED” called “Building a Sustainable Future: Progress & Trends Toward Improving the Environmental Footprint of Commercial Buildings”:

In these fast-changing times it is imperative we have measurement around whether green building choices both provide a very high return on investment and a significant decrease in our environmental impact. This webinar effectively demonstrates LEED certified green building accomplishes these goals while outlining next steps for LEED certification to further contribute to reducing the environmental footprint of buildings in the U.S. and worldwide.

During this 60 minute webinar a sneak-preview of the Green Building Market & Impact Report will be presented by the report’s author Robert Watson, Editor and industry leader. This report is an integrated assessment of the land, water, energy, material and indoor environmental impacts of the LEED for New Construction (LEED NC), Core & Shell (LEED CS) and Existing Building (LEED EB) standards.

JohnsonDiversey President & CEO Ed Lonergan will also highlight the importance of sustainability in today’s business environment, offering insights and examples of the company’s work toward improving the sustainability of its customers’ facilities as well as its own. This presentation will detail JohnsonDiversey’s own focus on LEED certification for many of its facilities worldwide.

Please visit for more information or to sign up. I would love your help spreading the word! It would be great if you could blog about the webinar and provide the signup URL before next Thursday. Also please forward this message to anyone you think would be interested in learning more about LEED certification and green commercial building. If you have a Facebook or Twitter account please also mention the conference there! There are some embeddable banners, a widget that includes Robert Watson’s Twitter feed, and other assets here:

I look forward to connecting with you. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask!


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