Beyond the Noise: tackling the meaning of noise and speech privacy among knowledge workers in the open office environment

Presented by: Dr. So-Yeon Yoon, Lily Yuanlingzi Shi

How the physical environment supports a variety of work is becoming increasingly important to organizations in new global, digital, and fast-paced business environments. While open-plan offices offer easy interaction between employees, flexible layout, natural light and potential views to nature (Borisuit et al., 2014; World Green Building Council, 2014), there are still significant noise and sound privacy issues. Previous studies confirm that noise distractions and a lack of sound privacy are the main causes of worker dissatisfaction in open-plan offices (Lee et al., 2016; Kim & de Dear, 2013). The goal of this study is to examine the effects of noise and sound privacy on self-rated job satisfaction, performance, and health among knowledge workers in a 10,000 sqft shared office. A total of 53 out of 65 workers in the library technical support center of an eastern private university participated in the study. Based on the units, job descriptions and qualifications from the managers of the office, five levels were identified according to specialization and complexity of work responsibilities (Appendix 1). Through a questionnaire using measures and questions adapted from previous literatures (Mobley, 1982; Amabile et al., 1996; Burell, 2002)., participants reported their satisfaction ratings on various office environment factors in addition to perceived noise level and sound privacy. Workplace outcomes for this study were operationalized as perceived self-performance, turnover intention, general health and stress. To understand the meaning of the workplace in relation to ambient noise level and sound privacy, place attachment scales (Hidalgo & Hernandez, 2001) were also modified and adopted. In addition to a questionnaire survey, social sensing badges were administered for three weeks. Wearable social sensing badges were used to capture natural social engagement behavior and communication patterns. The social sensing badges use four types of measurements: infrared, bluetooth, microphone, and accelerometer to collect data on body movement, speech activity (to whom and how much people talk with each other) , different dimension of exploration (interacting with people in other social groups), cohesion (interacting within the same social group), and activity (body movement). Previous studies using social sensing technology repeatedly report that more encounters are linked to more positive outcomes (Waber et al., 2014). The badge data and self-reports across the work types were analyzed using a series of statistical procedures including ANOVA and regressions. The results demonstrated that noise disturbance negatively affected self-rated health. Consistent with previous studies (Lee et al., 2016), job satisfaction was not correlated with noise disturbance, but was significantly related to natural/artificial lighting and the comfort of office furnishing. However, after controlling for work types, noise became the most significant factor in predicting job satisfaction. Interestingly, higher levels of worker specialty were directly correlated with lower noise and sound privacy satisfaction scores. It was also found that sound privacy has a significant impact on workers sense of office place attachment. Lower job satisfaction scores were correlated with higher turnover intention In addition, there were significant interaction effects of sound privacy and work types on performance (perceived productivity) and stress. The badge data indicated that cohesion behaviors significantly predicted job satisfaction and turnover intention. This study provides deeper understanding of key design factors in open plan office environments with an integrative approach with scientific rigor using both strategic self-reports and behavior data.


  • Amabile, T. M., Conti, R., Coon, H., Lazenby, J., & Herron, M. (1996). Assessing the Work Environment for Creativity. Academy of Management Journal, 39(5), 1154–1184.
  • Borisuit, A., Linhart, F., Scartezzini, J.-L., & Munch, M. (2014). Effects of realistic office daylighting and electric lighting conditions on visual comfort, alertness and mood. Lighting Research and Technology, 1–18.
  • Lee, P. J., Lee, B. K., Jeon, J. Y., Zhang, M., & Kang, J. (2016). Impact of noise on self-rated job satisfaction and health in open-plan offices: a structural equation modelling approach. Ergonomics, 59(2), 222–234.
  • Kim, J., & de Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18–26.
  • Waber, B., Magnolfi, J., & Lindsay, G. (2014). Workspaces That Move People: Today’s offices don’t encourage us to mingle—but that’s what creativity and productivity demand. Harvard Business Review. October 2014.