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Overhearing work conversations is worse than listening to meaningless noise, says a new study. 

Amanda MacMillan, RealSimple.com
December 05, 2016

If you’ve had trouble concentrating in an open floor-plan office, you’re not alone. Now, at least you’ve got science on your side: A new study suggests that overheard work conversations can decrease productivity—and increase annoyance—of other employees within earshot, more so than random and meaningless background buzz.

Open office plans are becoming increasingly common in workplaces, allowing companies to optimize space and, theoretically, encourage dialogue and collaboration among employees. But they also have their fair share of critics, and complaints about lack of privacy and noisy coworkers abound.

It’s no surprise that noise can be distracting, but researchers from Yamaguchi University in Japan wanted to see how work-related chatter might compare with other, less meaningful hubbub. So they performed a series of experiments to investigate the impact of different types of noises, using a test known as the “odd-ball” paradigm.

During odd-ball tests, people are asked to identify unique events sprinkled throughout a series of repetitive events. “To complete the odd-ball task it is necessary to regulate attention to a stimulus," said Takahiro Tamesue, associate professor of engineering, explained in a press release.

In one experiment, participants watched pictures flashing on a computer monitor while listening to either pink noise (similar to white noise, but with a spectrum closely resembling that of human voices) or actual male and female speech. Over a 10-minute period, they were asked to count the number of times a red square appeared in a mix of otherwise similar objects.

In the second experiment, people were asked to count the instances of an infrequent 2-kilohertz tone amid a series of 1-kilohertz tones. Afterward, they were asked to rate their level of annoyance at each sound, on a scale of one to seven.

During these and other trials, researchers measured participants’ brain waves using electrodes on their scalps. They looked specifically at two responses known as the N100 and P300 components, which peak approximately 100 and 300 milliseconds after a stimulus (in this case, a sound) is presented. These are thought to represent the activation of neurons involved in analyzing and making decisions about incoming sensory information, Tamesue says.

The researchers found that when participants listened to meaningful speech, they experienced large reductions in their N100 and P300 components—indicating that their selective attention to thinking-related tasks was influenced by the noise. Other experiments also showed that meaningful noises, such as music and conversation, led to greater declines in performance on memory and arithmetic tasks.

And yes, you guessed it: Meaningful noises had a stronger effect on levels of annoyance, as well, compared to meaningless ones.

Tamesue's research focuses on improving environments by analyzing the physiological and psychological effects of noise. He presented his new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, at a joint meeting of the Acoustical Societies of America and Japan, occurring this week in Hawaii.

The findings suggest that settings used for cognitive tasks, such as workplaces and schools, could benefit from designs that take into account the sound that’s likely to be present, says Tamesue—not just the volume, he adds, but the meaningfulness, as well.

“Surrounding conversations often disturb the business operations conducted in such open offices,” he says. “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.”

As for employees already stuck in a poorly designed office space? You could always don your headphones and crank up the white noise. Or, take a cue from other scientific research: Studies have shown that music without lyrics can enhance mental performance, and that natural sounds like a babbling mountain brook can be relaxing (and not distracting) in stressful workplaces.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.