Saturday, July 6, 2013

Open-Space and productivity: a workaround

These cubicles are infinitely humane and intimate compared to places I've worked

Open space is bad

It is notorious that open-space environments kill productivity, but executives insist on implementing this kind of work environment. On a CEO's accounting sheet, it looks as if office space is used more efficiently this way. Everybody knows it is counterproductive but if productivity goes down, workers will be blamed and the CEO's choice is above suspicion. Go figure!

It is estimated that it takes about 15 minutes for an average office worker to get back to full efficiency after his attention has been brought to any kind of interfering signal: a colleague speaking too loud, the sound of a door opening or closing, etc. and still we get distracted over 150 times in an average work day.

But we can reduce its impact

I have found a solution that works for me. It is not perfect -no solution is, except getting rid of open spaces- but it is pretty darn good. This solution is about listening to white noise. I'll get to that in a second, but first a word of moderation: if you're going to wear earphones for several hours a day at the office, you'd better have comfortable earphones. I personally dislike ear buds and I much prefer "closed headphones" aka "circumaural headphones", that cover the ears entirely and have large pads to spread the pressure over a large surface. Be careful also, if you wear glasses! closed headphones will press the branches of your glasses against your head and become painful at times. Thin ultra-light glasses are therefore better than thick ones. Or maybe it could decide you to use contact lenses or get eye surgery.

So what does white noise sound like? You can play it from the wikipedia page linked above, but you can also think of old TVs where channels were not synced with a TV station. Instead you had a black & white image of random patterns, like heavy snow, and the sound was something like "kssshhhhhhhhhhh". That sound is white noise.

The magic of white noise is that it covers equally ALL the audible frequencies and it therefore covers every other noise coming from your surrounding environment. This is the prime interest of white noise. A side-effect is also due to the way the human brain works. Even when we're not conscious of it, our brain still identifies patterns in non-random noises of our environment. This task expends energy and is the cause of extra tiredness when working in a busy open-space, even when we don't feel like we've been interrupted at any time. Because white noise is random, it interrupts the brain from using its pattern recognition functions and prevents the extra exhaustion. Neat, huh?

The only difficulty associated to white noise is getting used to it and surmounting the first hour of having it filling your ears. It can be very natural to feel uncomfortable or a bit spooked at the beginning because it is so different from our usual experiences. Personally, it probably took me 1-2 hours to adjust to it the first time. But after that, I got incredible benefits from keeping my focus on my work.

How do I get that white noise?

Mostly, there are 2 ways. First method is to obtain a mp3 audio file containing white noise from someone or from the internet. I therefore propose here a download link to a 15-minutes audio file of white noise. Its size (if you're concerned about bandwidth) is 5.5MB.

The second method, which I used to create this file, is to generate white noise by yourself with a computer program. It is very easy to do as you'll see. Download Audacity Portable and run it on your computer! It does not require an installation. Then use the following menus: Generate => Noise and you can play it directly, using Audacity, or export it (menu File => Export) to a mp3 format.

One last advice

In some offices, you also receive extra noise from the Air Conditioning System or servers running 24/7. This noise is very specific and can be further reduced by using headphones capable of "Active Noise Cancelling". Undoubtedly it adds up to the price of your headphones and it consumes batteries. But you might consider it worth, since the benefit is very real for your well-being and your level of tiredness. My personal choice of headphones is a Philips SHN9500, which has so many qualities that it deserves an article of its own. The usual retail price is around €90 ($115) but you might get lucky and find it like I did, in a shopping mall sale for as low as €65 ($83).

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