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Does anyone have any links to studies that show how noise affects the productivity of programmers? Specifically I would like to see how/if productivity rises when noise levels decrease.

As pointed in comments, the nature of the programming workflow is such that you go in and out of focus all the time -- so it's likely to be affected by noise differently than other lines of work.

The reason I think that this is programmer specific is that I am also interested in mathematics. In a noisy place, if I start thinking about maths, the noise goes away and I find myself lost in a world of pictures. In fact my favourite place to do maths was always The Copper Kettle cafe, a busy tourist place.

For programming it's completely different. While programming I'm usually thinking verbally, and any talking whatsoever destroys my train of thought. I'm literally incapable of programming anywhere where there is audible conversation.

I've talked to other programmers who don't even notice noise that disables me, and they say that they think mainly in pictures. Which is why I'm wondering whether there are any actual academic studies into whether programming is particularly noise-affected compared to say maths or lawyering.

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closed as off topic by gnat, thorsten müller, Jalayn, Walter, Mark Trapp Feb 4 '12 at 10:42

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Why close this question? –  Rei Miyasaka Feb 2 '12 at 11:05
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I have no idea. It seems that at least 3 people think it's offtopic –  user2567 Feb 2 '12 at 11:12
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@Pierre303 Most likely those people think that it's off-topic because it's a question that applies to all lines of work and not just to programming. To which I'd disagree, because the nature of the programming workflow is such that you go in and out of focus all the time -- so it's likely to be affected by noise differently than others, and so warrants its own research. –  Rei Miyasaka Feb 2 '12 at 11:18
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Not sure when the votes were cast, but as the question was originally written, it was pretty bad. –  Kevin D Feb 2 '12 at 11:18
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@ReiMiyasaka you should edit that into the question just to make it clear that we're after how this uniquely affects software developers. –  ChrisF Feb 2 '12 at 11:34

2 Answers 2

up vote 50 down vote accepted

The book Peopleware has several chapters that cover the subject. You can read a decent summary here.

Studies led by Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister showed statistically significant results about the correlation between noise and defects.

Here is an interesting part of the summary:

Workplace Quality and Product Quality - Companies that provide small and noisy workplaces explain away complaints as workers campaigning for the added status of bigger, more private space. To determine whether noise level had any correlation to work, we divided our sample into those who found the workplace acceptably quiet and those who didn't. Then, looking at workers within each group who completed the entire exercise without a single defect:

> Workers who reported that their workplace was acceptably quiet before
the exercise were 1/3 more likely to deliver zero-defect work.

As the noise level gets worse, this trend gets stronger:

  • Zero-defect workers: => 66% reported noise level OK
  • 1-or-more-defect workers: => 8% reported noise level OK

A Discovery of Nobel Prize Significance - On February 3, 1984, in a study of 32,346 companies worldwide, the authors confirmed a virtually perfect inverse relationship between people density and dedicated floor space per person. If you're having trouble seeing why this matters, you're not thinking about noise. Noise is directly proportional to density, so halving the allotment of space per person can be expected to double the noise. Even if you managed to prove conclusively that a programmer could work in 30 sq. ft. without being hopelessly space-bound, you still wouldn't be able to conclude that 30 sq. ft. is adequate space. The noise in a 30 sq. ft matrix is more than triple the noise in a 100 sq. ft. matrix, which could make the difference between a plague of product defects and none at all.

Check the summary, really, noise is one of the recurring subject in Peopleware.

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I suspect it is so noisy where you are that you forgot to finish your last sentence! –  jk. Feb 2 '12 at 11:06
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@Rei Miyasaka: in the book, he talks at least about three annoyances including phone, chatting & spoken information (in speakers) –  user2567 Feb 2 '12 at 11:10
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is this some sort of joke? --- the authors confirmed a virtually perfect inverse relationship between people density and dedicated floor space per person –  John Lawrence Aspden Feb 2 '12 at 16:46
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@Pierre303 I guess John thinks it's a joke because 'people density' is (Number of people)/(Total floor space) and 'floor space per person' is (Total floor space)/(Number of people) so of course there's a perfect inverse relationship between them - they're defined to be the inverse of one another. I don't understand that sentence at all. –  Chris Taylor Feb 3 '12 at 12:21
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@ChrisTaylor: Oh I didn't see that coming ;) I just verified in the book itself, and that was some sarcastic demonstration of the noise vs people density problem. More density = more noise annoyance since more people ;) So yes, it was some kind of joke to demonstrate the absurdity of reduction of square per person –  user2567 Feb 3 '12 at 12:42

The typical response to noisy conditions is to listen to music with headphones.

However, one of the really interesting studies quoted in Peopleware is the experiment done at Cornell -- they gave two groups a complicated task involving a long string of calculations. One group listened to music while performing the task, and one group had silence.

What they didn't tell either group is that the complicated string of calculations always returned the original number.

It turned out that not everyone figured this out, but of the people who did, a large majority came from the group that did not listen to music.

The theory apparently being is that listening to music is somehow engaging the part of the brain involved in creative thought, keeping it "busy" enough not to be able to look at the big picture of the task being performed.

Something to keep in mind the next time you plug in.

Look in the index under "Cornell" to find the reference.

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That test probably needed a 3rd group in order to be representative of real life. A silent group with occasional random noises/sounds occurring. That's the problem with silence. It is all good and well except that any unexpected sound at all is a major distraction. With background noise (ie. music/tv) those random sounds aren't as big of an issue. Although, I would agree that total silence is best for concentration. From my experience, when I come in on a Sunday and nobody is around, I get a weeks worth of work done in that one day. –  Dunk Feb 3 '12 at 18:05
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or to use noise-blocking/cancelling head-phones to lessen the external noises. –  user1249 Apr 4 '12 at 8:34

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