Printers stutter through their process in a pattern that makes you wonder why your colleague needs so many copies of the same thing, or reminds you that you have a few things to print. The whirring of the coffee machine will often make you check your cup, take a sip, or think about your favorite Italian espresso bar near the office. Water cooler conversations float across the room sparking interesting or annoying thoughts in the minds of all those in earshot. Office noise is a disruptive reality for the productive workplace.
“Noise can affect people in a number of ways – it has the power to influence our health, wellbeing, mental state and performance. Raised levels of sound can result in physiological changes including raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, hearing loss and stress,” explains Colin Stuart of workplace consultancy Baker-Stuart. While the research is limited, office noise appears to have a strong and complex relationship with productivity, a situation that appears to have gotten worse in our modern offices.
Carol Keogh, president and CEO of ESI Ergonomic Solutions has even suggested that “the introduction of panel systems/cubicles back in the 60s was a big help with office acoustics” but this improvement has been reversed by the emergence of open plan offices. Open plan offices raise the noise levels for all as a seemingly necessary side-effect of creating a more transparent and collaborative environment. As design firm, Gensler, puts it “when open plan sacrifices focus for collaboration, both suffer.”
“There is never going to be a perfect office, but organisations must create as much choice as possible to enable employees to vary noise levels to meet their needs depending on what they’re working on,” said Steve Lang, director of Savills Research and author of the ‘What Workers Want Survey’. “There should also be a desk-based solution for minimising noise levels at certain times, beyond simply donning the ubiquitous white headphones.”
Research conducted by Savills and the British Council for Offices concluded that open-plan offices are still the dominant choice of occupiers despite common noise complaints. Over three-quarters of their survey respondents work in open-plan offices but only 45% of respondents were satisfied with the noise levels in their office. They deduced therefore, that it is important to have areas where employees can concentrate on work in a quieter setting. Only 45% are satisfied with noise levels in an open-plan environment. For the private office, the satisfaction level is higher, but is still below 60%.
“It’s kind of a Goldilocks situation. A loud office sounds productive, but maybe it’s really annoying a lot of peope and they aren’t as productive as they could be. And in a silent office you’re not even sure if you can sneeze because everyone will look over. You want to find that happy medium depending on your desired environment,” says John Stein, President of acoustic materials specialists Kirei.
While the open plan office has played its part in increasing noise (and collaboration) in the workplace, noise is not necessarily a inevitable consequence of the open-plan office’s physical space. Consider a library, for example, a typically open-plan but silent space, or think about the booths (or cubicles) of a noisy restaurant. Workplace noise is more a function of a way a space is managed than its openness.
The office is also typically occupied by a very broad selection of people, each with unique personalities and different preferrences related to noise tolerance. A simplification of the science around this topic is that extroverts can cope better with noisy environments compared to introverts who perform better under quieter conditions, and the level of distraction varies somewhat in relation to the activity they are undertaking. Nigel Oseland, PhD CPsychol, developed the following table to demonstrate this concept in his 2015 paper - Planning for Psychoacoustics: A Psychological Approach to Resolving Office Noise Distraction.
Weinstein, a pioneer of the field of noise sensitivity, concluded that “noise frequently has interpersonal significance and is seen as an intrusion by those who are ill at ease in social settings and prize privacy”. Office and facility management must find a way to balance the level of noise so it is just right. Not too noisey and not too quiet, just the right amount so collaboration and focus can co-exist, but also taking personality type and other factors into account.
While this may sound challenging, developments in workplace design and the evolution of smart building technology is making it possible to create a workplace that gives you the best of both worlds, rather than a Goldilocks-style compromise. These offices are dynamic, not limited to open/cubicled desks, not even limited by fixed desks, rooms or office hours.
This is emboddied by the multi-space workplace that provides quiet areas for those who need it for focus or rest, open-plan spaces for greater collaboration and as a workspace to suit others. The multi-space office fits into a greater trend towards flexibility in the workplace and solves many of the problems associated with noise.
“The future of workplace layout is flexible, it caters for the individual and offers different areas for the variety of different tasks undertaken by the employee,” explains our Future Workplace Report. “Multi-space office layout brings together the best office layout concepts of the last 70 years in order to transcend employee characteristics, generational priorities, organizational activities and provide maximum productivity from the space available. The future of office layout is multi-space.”