Have you experienced the joy of an open plan workplace? You may even be in one right now – revelling in the 14 scrambled conversations around you and possibly over hearing some exciting commentary about weekend plans. Or – maybe you don’t see it as a joy. In reality, noise from open plan workspaces is the bane of many office workers' existence.
Noise in the workplace bothers us, even more than the temperature of the air con (and that’s saying something!). Excess noise affects productivity, happiness and even our physical health. According to Julian Treasure from consultancy The Sound Agency, office noises are literally an assault on our neurons and for an aging workforce, that’s very bad news. Treasure says, “if you’re trying to listen to one person in an office and the background noise is very loud, it becomes harder and harder … the brain is having a struggle.”
The good news is that getting the acoustics right at work isn’t hard. It’s simply a matter of understanding the needs of each zone and tailoring the soundscape to suit. Here’s what most offices lack, but desperately need.
First of all, functional offices require a place where workers can focus. It sounds obvious, but with 70% of offices now open plan, this place for focus is unlikely to be at a desk. As Treasure explains, the average person has ‘bandwidth’ for 1.6 conversations, including our own inner voices. So if there’s a lot of noise in the workplace and someone is talking near you, you only have a fraction of focus left for your own thoughts. Treasure explains, “even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop.” After all, “you have no earlids.”
The solution is pretty obvious: find a place that’s nice and quiet for when you need to concentrate. If you can’t move your seat, headphones are a popular solution. But if you need to truly absorb information, music will hinder, not help you. So go with white noise or total noise cancelling headphones. Even better, see if you can arrange for specific areas in the office to be designated as quiet spaces, even if it’s only for a few hours each day.
Most office-based work involves some sort of meetings (but if yours doesn’t, lucky you!). However, meeting rooms are usually terrible places to have a conversation. Acoustics expert, Steve Johnson, said, “many are designed with glass walls, hard ceilings, whiteboards and big-screen televisions on the walls.” In other words, materials which reflect noise literally surround your conference table. This makes it harder to hear the person across from you, let alone a pixelated face at the other end of a video chat.
Rest assured, there is a solution. If you can arrange it, take a look at implementing sound absorbing tiles and panels in your meeting rooms. A few pieces carefully placed, can make an audible difference.
Finally, you’ll probably need somewhere in the office where you can workshop ideas with colleagues or make a casual phone call. In this instance, you’ll want privacy, but not the kind of silence which will force everyone to eavesdrop (even if they don’t mean to). What you need is known as ‘masking noise’.
So the solution we suggest here are nature sounds, such as birdsong or even a computer-generated soundscape. According to Treasure, most offices require about a 50 or 60 decibel background noise to get people comfortable enough to talk freely.
Get all these elements sorted and you’re well on the way to a functioning workplace, acoustically speaking, at least. Now, where did you put that to-do list?