The aim of this study was to find out what are the effects of three different sound environments on performance of cognitive tasks of varying complexity. These three sound environments were 'speech', 'masked speech' and 'continuous noise'. They corresponded to poor, acceptable and perfect acoustical privacy in an open-plan office, respectively. The speech transmission indices were 0.00, 0.30 and 0.80, respectively. Sounds environments were presented at 48 dBA. The laboratory experiment on 36 subjects lasted for 4 h for each subject. Proofreading performance deteriorated in the 'speech' (p < 0.05) compared to the other two sound environments. Reading comprehension and computer-based tasks (simple and complex reaction time, subtraction, proposition, Stroop and vigilance) remained unaffected. Subjects assessed the 'speech' as the most disturbing, most disadvantageous and least pleasant environment (p < 0.01). 'Continuous noise' annoyed the least. Subjective arousal was highest in 'masked speech' and lowest in 'continuous noise' (p < 0.05). Performance in real open-plan offices could be improved by reducing speech intelligibility, e.g. by attenuating speech level and using an appropriate masking environment.