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Acoustics in the workplace: how to cope with today’s multi-functional workplace

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Nick Jones, Head of Acoustics, discusses how to cope with today’s
multi-functional workplace


N Jones ColourIn today’s workplace, one of the top staff complaints is the inability to concentrate due to noise levels. As an acoustic consultant to many developers and end users in the commercial sector, that doesn’t surprise me, and with the way the workplace is evolving, it’s only going to grow in significance. In the future, it will need to be carefully managed, or it will affect our health.

Almost all offices today involve open plan areas and, since the advent of co-working, collaboration and team working have become the focus of many office environments. According to recent research presented at this year’s British Council for Offices (BCO) Conference by JLL, individual working has halved in recent years.

There are now multiple modes of interaction – formal, informal, virtual, social and face-to-face. There are also different settings for different tasks – traditional desks, sit-stand desks, soft seating, collaboration areas, break-out areas and so on. Then there are home-from-home leisure and hospitality elements creeping in: coffee shops, dining areas, gyms.

Acoustics in the Workplace Quote 2With the vast majority of office spaces now designed to encourage people to communicate and work with others, there are unsurprisingly significant noise implications and far greater potential for distractions and interruptions.

A ‘Wellbeing at Work Study’ by the BCO last year revealed that over a quarter of UK employees find the acoustics of their office unpleasant, and 20% of employees blame this on a noisy open plan environment. The biggest source of distraction is people’s voices. More recently, at the BCO Conference, open plan working was referenced as a crime against productivity! There are various statistics available, with the most shocking being a 66% decrease in productivity for open plan compared to cellular.

But noise doesn’t just impact employee effectiveness, it can be a major distraction and source of frustration and stress, which in turn can impact wellbeing. More organisations accept their responsibility in creating environments that support our physical and mental health, and it’s therefore essential when delivering these spaces that our design solutions help create an optimum workplace environment for everyone.

We need to adopt an integrated, systematic approach to the acoustical design of office spaces, to ensure the design takes into consideration and mitigates the known noise issues from the outset. Critical to this is knowing how the occupants are going to work. For example, is a lively ‘workshop’ environment desirable and will quiet, isolated zones be required?

AH_LowerFloorIt’s not always possible to predict every noise problem and some issues may present themselves over time. There are some simple retrospective solutions to help create a balanced ambience, including more screening between workstations; dividing spaces up – from the quiet areas for concentrative work, through to the break out spaces that support creativity and team work; and acoustic rafts and panels that help reduce overall reverberation and noise levels. 

Bad acoustics isn’t only a problem when it’s too noisy – it’s also an issue when it’s too quiet. Low ambient background sound can make seemingly quiet sounds distracting, and being overheard becomes a big privacy issue. Acoustics in the Workplace Quote 1To counteract this problem, a sound masking system can be used, raising the background levels so that voices or sounds that have decayed to a level below the masking will be covered up. This doesn’t necessarily prevent a person from hearing another person speak, but it does inhibit their ability to understand what is being said, which increases the feeling of privacy and in turn reduces distraction.

Workplace trends change over time, but open plan is here to stay. That means noise is too. For as long as collaboration rather than privacy is seen as a competitive advantage, the office will be formed of multiple places where people can inspire, interact and collaborate. It’s therefore essential that the design is holistic and embeds acoustics in the planning phase. Only then can organisations manage issues, provide a more productive environment for their employees, and support their wellbeing. 


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