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Workers in most offices deal with workplace noise in two different ways. Either they sit in a noisy, open plan office and, over time, get used to that background noise as they go about their activities, or they put a set of headphones on and detach from their distracting environment. Neither of these scenarios is ideal. Background noise has a distracting influence even for those who seem to be getting used to it, and use of headphones reduces collaboration between workers.

A study by Cornell University’s Lorraine E Maxwell titled “Noise in the office workspace” demonstrates that excess noise in the workplace can lead to lower job satisfaction, reduction in employee productivity, dips in morale, and worker fatigue.

Other research has shown that noise levels within the popular open office design of bigger workplaces can get as high as 65 decibels, which is about the same level of noise as being in a room where a vacuum cleaner or hairdryer is being used. Not an ideal working environment.

“Noise, defined as unwanted sound, is a common complaint in office. Researchers studying the effects of noise on office workers have found that prolonged exposure to noise may have serious health ramifications, such as increased illness (e.g., elevated blood pressure), accidents, and stress,” writes Maxwell. “Noisy offices may increase a worker’s feelings of negative mood. In addition, studies have shown that certain levels of noise can incapacitate a person’s ability to concentrate on a particular task,” she continous.

Workplace acoustics are often neglected but, in reaction to research is showing that noise can have a significant impact on productivity, a range of smart technology and materials are providing solutions and raising productivity levels in noisy spaces. Smart workplace acoustics are now set to be the next frontier for increasing productivity in smart commercial buildings.

“Acoustics is generally viewed as unimportant or where FMs can put more money towards it later if it is a problem and the budget allows,” says Andrew Schmitt, Associate Designer at Convergent Technologies Design Group in Phoenix. “In any project, we try to convey the importance of acoustics and how it can truly affect a project, especially in the markets of education, healthcare and commercial facilities.”

Office noise generally manifests in two forms, internal and external. External noise is a real problem in many offices, especially those in busy city centers and business districts. The constant flow of traffic produces a relentless hum of engines and intermittent honking. Other businesses around the office may include bars, restaurants, and supermarkets, where deliveries, music, conversation and the general flow of people each bring their own noises to the street and into the nearby workplaces. Construction sites take noise disruption to another level.

When tackling external noise, the key strategy is blocking. Windows are the key culprit for letting these external noises seep into the workplace, so double-glazing and other strategies that thicken windows or fit them better in their frames are an obvious defense. Recently, smart materials like ‘sound absorption panels,’ made of aluminum embedded with a high-density noise absorber, or insulation materials built into the walls, allow workplaces to reduce noise while maximizing windows to let in natural light – another productivity booster.

Internal noise is a little more complex. Phone calls and conversations between colleagues make up the most obvious sounds in the office and, due to their content-rich nature, can be the most distracting. Printer noise and the general hum of computer fans adds another layer to the office hum. At any one time, there may be kettles boiling, people eating, conversations, phones ringing, printers, computers, and a variety of other sounds distracting those trying to focus on their work.

Tackling these types of sound have generally led to sacrifice. Workers using headphones, as mentioned earlier, blocks sound but also collaboration. The same is true for cubicles and other partitioned workspaces versus open-plan offices, that have been a popular method to improve focus. Smart technology and materials are now attempting to tackle the internal noise problem in a way that maintains and even improves collaboration in offices.

Acoustic fabrics and ceiling panels have been designed to absorb internal office sounds without isolating workers. Acoustic insulation spray offers a relatively cheap and easy option for sound absorption in workplaces that may have limited space for bigger structures. Smart wall paneling materials, such as Rockfon’s stone wool, absorb sound and diffuse light to create a brighter, quieter and more productive workplace.

Office furniture can also help workplaces improve acoustics to raise productivity. In many cases, the hard desks and tables found in offices actually amplify sound around the space but the most forward-thinking furniture designers are building acoustic qualities into their products. The Jetty Table from Abstracta features a tabletop made of several layers that soak up sounds. Whilst American designer Cory Gross collaborated with the Belgian furniture purveyor on a noise controlling green wall system. The reindeer moss wall panels naturally absorb sound and offer biophilic health, well-being, and productivity benefits.

It is still early days in the developing field of acoustic workplace design but these products and others are proving that sound can be the next frontier for workplace productivity. As buildings adopt increasingly smarter lighting, temperature control, and air quality measures, to maximize productivity, it’s only logical that sound be part of this workplace development. Perhaps the next consideration will be productivity enhancing, smart workplace smells.