'Visual noises' cause workplace distractions

More than 70 percent of American workers now work in open office spaces. If you can see everyone around you when you sit down to get the job done, you know it can increase collaboration, but there can also be challenges. 

A major culprit: noise. But the kind you “hear” may not be the biggest distraction.

Rhonesha Byng, for example loves her job, but a cubicle-free, open office environment created problems.

“The distractions just made it a little difficult for me to really focus in on getting stuff done,” she said.

The distractions she’s talking about are primarily from noise, not just the kind heard from fellow co-workers, but also from what’s seen. It’s called “visual noise.”

“Visual noise, it can be a huge problem in the office,” says workplace strategist Leigh Stringer. “And the reason being is that it does impact productivity.” 

Research even proves it. Stringer helps design office space for a living. She says, “visual noise” can be caused by things like bright walls, busy pictures, knickknacks or clutter on your co-workers’ desks, even your co-workers themselves.

"The biggest cause of visual noise is movement of people," she explained.

“I’m someone who’s super nosy,” Rhonesha says. “And I always tend to look at other people’s screens and see what they’re doing, what they’re working on.”

But, there are solutions, like more subtle wall color, targeting lighting, adding special privacy barriers like blinds, or plants to block your view of co-workers, even turning desks away from corridors. 

Jason Saltzman, the owner of an office space for entrepreneurs, worked with a designer to reduce visual noise at his newest location. 

“We look at it in terms of what people need, what are the needs of the work environment, how can we make it more productive," he said.    

Jason owns where Rhonesha does her job. It’s one of many places now giving workers choices, like community areas when people want to be more social or collaborate, or private areas when workers really want to focus. 

“There’s a balance between private offices and open space that really mixes the noise capability," Jason said.

Rhonesha says, for her, that balance is boss.

“There’s privacy and community in the best way," she said.

And, if you’re bothered by all the noise you hear from co-workers, some experts suggest one easy fix is good old fashioned headphones.

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