Last reviewed 7 January 2016

The noise levels of an office environment are often overlooked when wellbeing is considered. Environment managers can improve productivity and meet their responsibilities by changing design and attitudes to noise, says Dave Howell.

For environment managers, the noise levels in their offices and other work spaces need to be included within the risk assessments that should take place at regular intervals. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 are designed to protect employees from noise, but noise is often overlooked as a major factor that influences productivity and wellbeing.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states: “Wherever there is noise at work you should be looking for alternative processes, equipment and/or working methods which would make the work quieter or mean people are exposed for shorter times. You should also keep up with what is good practice or the standard for noise-control within your industry, eg through your trade association, or machinery or equipment suppliers.”

Environment managers initially need to differentiate noise and sound. Often the difference is highly subjective to individuals. This should be taken into account when ambient noise in an office environment is tested and measured, and whether the playing of background music for instance is actually beneficial to all.

“Cognitively, there is plenty of research now that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations,” Julian Treasure at the Sound Agency told Steelcase. “We have bandwidth for roughly 1.6 human conversations. So if you’re hearing somebody’s conversation, then that’s taking up 1 of your 1.6. Even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop it: You have no earlids. And that means you’ve just .6 left to listen to your own inner voice.”

And noise can kill. According to research carried out by the World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, Europeans are estimated to lose around 61,000 years of healthy life annually because of noise-related heart disease. Taking control of this environmental factor is vital for all businesses to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees.

Noise design

Methods for alleviating noise distractions in the workplace need to be carefully assessed. As employees will complete different tasks throughout their working day, the impact of noise will be different, depending on the task.

The trend for more open plan office space needs to change if environment managers are to fulfil their duty of care when considering sound and noise factors for their organisations’ employees. Environment managers therefore need to be aware of this and develop different environments to ensure sound is used as an asset. Using acoustic barriers and offering quiet zones can help to develop a multi-layered approach to sound management.

Bostjan Ljubic, vice-president of sales, Steelcase UK and Ireland, said: “The drive for collaborative working spaces was founded on getting people working better together. It has been enormously successful and has delivered efficiency on a major scale, but too much interaction and not enough privacy has reached crisis proportions, taking a heavy toll on workers’ creativity, productivity, engagement and wellbeing.”

Donna Flynn, director of Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures says: “A lot of businesses are now struggling with the balance of private and open spaces. There’s mounting evidence that the lack of privacy is causing people to feel overexposed in today’s workplaces and is threatening people’s engagement and their cognitive, emotional and even physical wellbeing. Companies are asking questions like, ‘Have we gone too far toward open plan… or not done it right? What’s the formula? What kind of a workplace should we be creating?’”

Workplace Unlimited advised: “Actions to resolve noise distraction need to account for individual differences and not assume that a single physical acoustic solution will work for all office occupants. A psychoacoustic approach to understanding noise distraction indicates that other, people-centred, solutions are also required. Such solutions are more behavioural, educational, managerial and organisational rather than physical.”

Key acoustic issues

Nigel Oseland, director, Workplace Unlimited was asked what the key acoustic issues in an office environment were, and replied:

“The focus of the acoustics industry is in reducing (intelligible) speech transference which is a key factor, but we also know that occupants with different personality types and those involved in different work activities respond differently to noise – some can cope better than others. We need to support those who need to focus and work without distraction (often introverts) as well as those who need to interact and collaborate, and that is the challenge.”

Some research suggests that the open office can actually have a negative impact on workers who can’t concentrate and feel their personal privacy is compromised. What’s your view in the context of noise?

“There is good and there is poor open plan office design. In the UK quite often we see a reduction in desk sizes, increasing the occupational density, along with a reduction in quiet spaces, breakout and other facilities. This version of open plan is quite different to the original landscaped office (Bürolandschaft) concept. Placing our people in isolated boxes is as bad as placing them in a high density open space. We need a well-balanced working environment, offering a choice of work-settings that supports work requiring concentration, as well as buzzy spaces for interaction and motivation.”

What practical steps can environment managers take to ensure noise doesn’t have a negative impact across their businesses or organisations?

“The design process should begin by understanding the core activities and make-up of the workforce, and building a workspace to support that. Consider how you arrange your workers, providing calming versus stimulating workspaces. Offer a choice of work-settings, including the home for those who wish to work occasionally without distraction, and a mix of spaces in the office which help displace or contain nosy activities. Introduce some behavioural etiquette around how to behave in the open plan and not disturb colleagues. Apply acoustic treatments such as absorbing ceilings, wall panels and desk screen to reduce sound transfer.”

Should environment managers understand the differences between noise and sound when developing their office environments?

“Yes, the key difference is that noise is subjective (and varies with individual interpretation) and is only partially correlated with sound level. We need to understand what causes noise distraction for different people as well as monitor sound levels. In terms of modern office design, noise is the biggest issue and challenge facing our designers and architects. We know that uncontrolled noise reduces worker performance and we are long overdue addressing it.”

Conclusion

Sound and noise need to be taken together with environment managers appreciating the key differences and how these impact on their workforces. Office design in particular needs to be more flexible and intelligent to take into consideration how sound is interpreted and what practical impact it has on wellbeing and productivity.