Before the Industrial Age, smells were probably the biggest annoyance for urban dwellers. According to the World Health Organization, today noise is the biggest annoyance (ref). WHO guidelines recommend less than 35 A-weighted decibels (dB [A]) in classrooms to allow for concentration and learning. A normal conversation or a window air conditioner is around 60 dBA, and inside an older New York subway car is about 95 dBA. An ideal office space should probably have more in common with a classroom than a subway car.
A recent N.Y. Times article called “Brain, Interrupted” references several university studies on the impact of noise and interruptions. Carnegie Mellon did an experiment on people taking a standard cognitive skill test. One group merely took the test, the others were interrupted twice. The interrupted people answered correctly 20% less than the control group. So much for multi-tasking!
Navy, a design agency in Melbourne Australia has instituted a daily hour of quiet time when employees are silent both online and offline. The company claims their teams are 23% more productive and significantly less stressed since they began the program. They now take Friday afternoons off because of the boost in productivity.
The aim should be to create a variety of workspaces, breakout zones, canteen/coffee areas and meeting rooms with the right level of acoustic absorption where occupants can talk and work.