Life is full of little mysteries. Why do we run out of conditioner before we’re out of shampoo? Why do we blush, even when we’re not embarrassed? And perhaps most frustratingly for people with chatty co-workers, why can’t we concentrate on work in our noisy, open-plan office when we have no problem focusing in a busy coffee shop?
The first two questions remain a mystery, but The Telegraph reports that researchers may have found an explanation for why your loquacious office peers drive you crazier than a rambling barista or clattering dishes: People trying to focus on a task find work-related conversations to be far more distracting (and annoying) than random, meaningless chitchat.
A team of acoustic scientists, led by Takahiro Tamesue, a professor at Yamaguchi University in Japan, conducted a study that looked at how background noise affects concentration. They asked subjects to perform tasks requiring intense focus while listening to various sounds, including random noises or productive, work-related discussions.
During one test, volunteers had to count how many times a red square flashed across a computer screen over the course of 10 minutes, while listening to both random noise and human speech at different pitches. In a second trial, they were asked to identify and count an infrequently heard noise among a sea of other noises, including background noise, music, and meaningful words. Subjects were asked to rate how annoying the "distracting" sounds were. During both tasks, scientists monitored participants’ brain waves through electrodes placed on the scalp, to gauge whether they were processing the sounds or were tuning them out.
Researchers found “that more meaningful noises, such as music and conversation, had a stronger effect on levels of subjective annoyance than meaningless noises—and led to a greater decline in performance on cognitive tasks involving memory or arithmetic tests,” as they concluded in a news release. Additionally, the participants' brain waves showed that their selective attention was influenced by how meaningful the noises were.
According to Tamesue, the study’s findings suggests that employees should consider not only sound level, but how meaningful sounds are, while creating a workplace ambiance. “Because it is difficult to soundproof an open office, a way to mask meaningful speech with some other sound would be of great benefit for achieving a comfortable sound environment,” he said.
In short, if you’re going to have a discussion about work with a co-worker, consider opting for the soundproof conference room instead of talking in the middle of the office. Your colleagues will thank you—and end up being way more productive, to boot.