John is on the phone again. You can hear his every word. He’s sat on the other side of the office but it might as well be your knee. Sound familiar?
We’ve all worked in places where sound has been a distraction – the chatter of colleagues, the banging of doors, the sound of equipment and incessant ringing of mobile phones.
Today’s offices are typically open plan so it’s easy to see why noise is one of the biggest gripes of UK employees and how excessive noise can reduce both workplace productivity and wellbeing.
Noise isn’t just a condition of the work environment – it is something that should be managed properly and considered when designing spaces. If noise becomes too great it affects our ability to concentrate, our patience with others and has also been linked to absenteeism and sickness too (according to Guy Clapperton from The Sound Agency).
Ideally noise is managed at the point of initiating an office interior design project – relying on your interior designer to build its management into the design. But for those businesses that have a legacy of noise issues and no plans to remodel their office, it presents different considerations.
So how can businesses address the challenges of noise in their workplace?
1. Ambient noise
There are a number of sound masking or acoustic absorber systems that can be retrospectively fit into an office to help reduce noise.
In recent years pink noise has become popular as a workplace solution – the noise masks low-frequency background sound and is barely audible in itself, helping to increase productivity and concentration. These systems can be fit into the ceiling cavity without too much disruption. Other sound masking systems make use of low-level nature sounds or bird song – sounds that don’t require cognition from those listening but do mask the conversation of others.
2. Acoustic panels
In the last five years there’s been a boom in office acoustic solutions and acoustic panelling is just one example. Quite often they look like art, inject colour into a space and can be attached to walls, suspended from ceilings or used as freestanding partitions and space dividers. These help to stop the transfer of sound across open plan spaces and provide visual interest too.
While there are certainly systems, fabrics and furniture that can be used, a simple reminder of office protocols can be just as effective. Ask everyone to be more aware of the noise they make. No one wants a silent office (that can be just as distracting) but more self-awareness about our own working behaviours will help to make a better workplace environment for everyone.
4. Create different activity settings
Open plan offices that are full of hard surfaces, e.g. desks, storage and tables provide very few places for sound to be absorbed. By adding a few pieces of well-placed soft furnishings you can provide some sound absorption and break up the great expanse of open plan office too. Plus by providing a greater variety of spaces to work in, you encourage employees to think more carefully about the task they’re working on and the space that’s appropriate for that. Perhaps there’s scope for you to add some quiet pods or additional break-out spaces so that all the workspace noise is not in the main office?
5. Meeting rooms
Quite often meeting rooms are some of the worst culprits for sound – either they amplify the sound within them, letting others nearby hear what’s being said, or the reverb is so great that it becomes difficult to follow conversations with colleagues. You could consider sound-proofing meeting rooms or introducing some well placed acoustic panels or soft furnishings. Plus, check that doors and windows are well-fitting so that noise can’t enter or escape.
6. Provide solace
Lots of workspaces encourage employees to find the right way of working to suit them. The provision of headphones can give employees the opportunity to block out noise when working at their desks or for them to listen to something more conducive with the task they’re working on.
Excessive noise in the workplace can reduce productivity by as much as two thirds and with more and more of the UK employed in knowledge-based jobs, this is a distraction that employers can not afford to ignore. The workforce is aging and the issue of noise management is a particularly key consideration here. How we hear and our tolerance for sounds is far different in our 60s to when we are in our 20s. Businesses about to embark on new interior design and fit-out projects must consider more than the aesthetic of their workspaces, instead considering all our senses, our workplace wellbeing and the various needs of an aging population.