Sound in Offices

Are ping-pong tables and cycle racks enough to create real wellbeing at work?

Office design has changed radically over the last 100 years. Stark, regimented rows of desks are starting to make way for something more organic, with ‘wellbeing’ the new buzzword. Ping-pong tables, social spaces, cycle racks, and pets at work are the new norms. Google’s headquarters in Zurich even has a massage room, an aquarium, and a slide that engineers can travel down to get to the canteen. But are quirky design elements enough to create real wellbeing?

The impact of office noise

If you’re reading this in an office, take a second to stop and listen. What sounds can you hear around you? Noise in offices is a huge problem, especially for solo working, and it isn’t showing any signs of abating. In one study, 99% of participants reported that their concentration was impaired at work due to noise1.

The impact of noise in the office is significant. Firstly, it reduces personal effectiveness by up to two thirds2! Alongside this, noise also affects stress levels3,4 , short-term memory5, and motivation4.

Offices generate many noises. Ringing telephones are major distractors – they are specifically designed to elicit attention and action after all – but the biggest source of frustration is other people’s conversations6. By far the biggest problem in offices is lack of speech privacy. Whilst we’re fairly good at tuning out jumbled background hubbub, we can’t do the same for individual voices. Speech is almost impossible for us to ignore7. The problem is heightened by technology. Nowadays, we can hear not only face-to-face conversations but also speakerphone calls and video conferencing, all amongst increasingly cramped workspaces due to creeping densification as employers seek to save overhead by cramming ever more people into the available space.

Sound in open plan

Open plan is clearly denser and therefore less expensive per head than old fashioned closed offices, but it is also supposed to come with work benefits, namely greater creativity and collaboration. The latest research casts doubt on these presumed benefits, and indicates that people actually reduce face to face interaction in open plan spaces8! What’s consistently clear is that open plan offices generally challenge and compromise workers who need to concentrate. Most of us know the frustration of creating a complex spreadsheet or written document whilst surrounded by intelligible human conversations. It’s no surprise that more than half the workers in open plan spaces are dissatisfied9 with the noise in their environments.

There’s a huge disparity between what workers need and what managers are prioritising. Recent research found that office workers’ number one priority is a workplace free of distractions. But when it comes to management priorities, noise is bottom of the list and privacy is only just above it10.

Sound and flexible workspaces

With managers seemingly unaware of the noise issue, the role of architects becomes all the more important. How can architects design workplaces that deliver the basic needs of the people trying to work in them? Author and academic Professor Jeremy Myerson believes that the answer is heterogeneous design, rather than the ‘one size fits all’ approach of open plan.  Given a variety of types of space, workers can move to the most appropriate one for the task at hand. This is known as activity-based working. Myerson defines three categories of work to design for: collaboration, concentration, and contemplation. Open plan may be appropriate for the first, but it compromises the other two.

At The Sound Agency we often work with architects to improve office spaces. To do this, we review four factors, which form the cornerstones of good sound in any space. They must be carefully considered in order.

The four cornerstones of good sound

1. Acoustics in offices

First, acoustics. Every new build should have an acoustician involved from the very beginning, consulting with the architect to create a space that sounds as good as it looks. Without proper planning, those fashionable hard surfaces (metal, stone, glass) will dramatically increase noise levels. It’s far cheaper to design with acoustic materials from the outset than to retrofit them after problems come to light. In offices, acoustic treatments can absorb unwanted noise in concentration spaces to reduce stress, deaden meeting rooms to ensure intelligibility, and attenuate sound between rooms to improve privacy.

2. Noise pollution in offices

The second cornerstone is noise. This involves minimising or isolating distracting sound. It may involve intelligent layouts – for example, not fitting quiet concentration spaces next to the inevitably noisy cafeteria – or purchasing quieter machinery. The Quiet Mark website is a great place to start for this – they cover everything from quiet air conditioning to coffee machines.

3. Sound systems in offices

Third is sound system quality. Whilst many offices might not have fully integrated sound systems, one area that often lets a space down is its conferencing equipment. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered a state-of-the-art video display being let down by a tiny, low quality microphone and speaker in the centre of a large conference table. Remote conferencing must have good quality sound; video is actually an optional extra. Other spaces may need a sound system to play audio content, in which case the components must be good enough to do this at a quality that reflects well on the brand or the building. So often, audio system quality is value engineered out of existence, with cheap amplifiers and loudspeakers resulting in spaces that just sound nasty.

4. Music and masking sound in offices

Last but not least is content. Offices can be too quiet as well as too noisy. In a very quiet office, every small sound becomes a major distraction and speech privacy is non-existent. In this case, we need some masking sound. In a quiet space, conversations over fifteen metres away may be intelligible; effective masking can reduce this distance to around four metres. In social areas, or for creative teams, or in areas where the work is undemanding and repetitive, background sound or music can play a useful role – but it’s important not to let this become a distraction. Reactions to music are personal and highly variable. If in doubt, turn it off!

Benefits

The results of good sound in offices are clear and measurable. Three recent studies measured the impact of acoustic treatments aimed at improving privacy. They found that task focus improved by 48%, distractions were halved, error rates and short-term memory improved by 10%, and the physical symptoms of stress reduced by a quarter4,11,12,13.

References 

  1. Banbury, S. P., & Berry, D. C. (2005). Office noise and employee concentration: Identifying causes of disruption and potential improvements. Ergonomics. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140130412331311390
  2. Banbury, S., & Berry, D. C. (1998). Disruption of office-related tasks by speech and office noise. British Journal of Psychology, 89(3), 499–517. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1998.tb02699.x
  3. Cohen, S. (1980). Aftereffects of stress on human performance and social behavior: A review of research and theory. Psychological Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.88.1.82
  4. Evans, G. W., & Johnson, D. (2000). Stress and open-office noise. Journal of Applied Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.85.5.779
  5. Jones, D. (1999). The cognitive psychology of auditory distraction: The 1997 BPS Broadbent Lecture. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 167–187.
  6. Herman Miller. (2015). It’s a Matter of Balance: New Understandings in Open-Plan Acoustics. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://www.hermanmiller.co.uk/research/research-summaries/its-a-matter-of-balance-new-understandings-in-open-plan-acoustics.html
  7. Banbury, S., & Berry, D. (1997). Habituation and Dishabituation to Speech and Office Noise. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-898X.3.3.181
  8. Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239
  9. Savills, & British Council for Offices. (2013). What Workers Want. T + D, 67(April), 1 p. https://doi.org/10.2307/25149243
  10. Oxford Economics. (2016). When the walls come down: How smart companies are rewriting the rules of the open workplace. Plantronics.
  11. Lewis, E., Sykes, D., & Lemieux, M. (2003). Using a Web-Based Test to Measure the Impact of Noise on Knowledge Workers’ Productivity. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 2003(47), 1972–1976.
  12. Lewis, E., Sykes, D., Lemieux, M., Horrall, T., & Dowell, B. (2003). Reducing noise distraction to increase worker productivity. Summary of a 4 -Month Laboratory Study Published by Herman Miller, Inc.
  13. Sykes, D. (2009). Productivity: How Acoustics Affect Workers’ Performance In Offices & Open Areas. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://www.speechprivacysystems.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Productivity.pdf
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