In the 1990s, cubicles were introduced into workplaces because HR theorists argued that cubicles would create an office climate more conducive to collaboration among workers than that provided by private offices. This climate, HR theorists maintained, would encourage greater creativity, camaraderie, and productivity.
Why? They didn't account for what was transpiring regularly behind closed office doors. Namely, those "unmanaged bodily noises" that used to be muted by closed office doors but suddenly were now out in the open, thus creating a whole new HR cottage industry called "bodily noise management."
NPR interviewed workplace design expert Alan Hedge of Cornell University who cited a survey in which 74% of workers ranked unmanaged bodily noises as the #1 workplace disturbance and distraction. These noises certainly don't qualify for what OSHA calls "occupational noise disorder."
Here how the phenomenon of unmanaged bodily noise typically unfolds:
- There's the warning--a sharp intake of breath and momentary pause--and then:
- persistent hacking coughs;
- violent "shout coughs" (where the person doesn't cover one's mouth); or,
- "train horn" nose blowers.
Interruptions are one thing. But, what about the contagion?
And that's to say nothing about other habits that lead to unmanaged bodily noise, like the co-worker who eats frozen carrots resulting in a hacking cough that's characteristic of someone suffering from chronic bronchitis.
It can be pretty bad, no? All of those unmanaged bodily noises causing desks to shake, interrupting conversations, and intruding upon phone calls.
The result of not managing bodily noise? Forget about greater creativity, camaraderie, and productivity. They cause a notable decrease in workplace efficiency and effectiveness.
Wrongo! That's not only taboo in a cubicle work environment, but it might also be illegal.
Illegal? Yep. If the offending noise is a result of illness or disease, the Americans With Disabilities Act wieghs in. For example: Social Security Administration managers reprimanded a worker 4 years ago for his "excessive flatulence." After filing co-workers' numerous complaints and writing up management's warnings, the employee was charged with "conduct unbecoming a federal employee." In response, the employee cited lactose intolerance and got Service Employees International Union to intervene. The reprimand was rescinded.
Federal law and regulations require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for those folks. However, those accommodations can vary.
A theoretical solution: Create an open space. According to Alan Hedge, cubicle walls provide the illusion of sound privacy, but actually make people less aware of the noises they create. Install carpeting, drapery, and upholsterty to mute human bodily sounds.
The Motley Monk's practical solution: Private offices with doors that can be closed.
NPR reports a study conducted by researchers at the University of California's Center for the Built Environment. The data reveal workers reporting that they're happier working in enclosed offices, less likely to take sick days and, The Motley Monk would add, not having to abide with the person in the next cubicle's unmanaged bodily sounds.
Let the discussion begin...
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