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Making Sense(s) of the Workplace: Sound

Author:

Dan Pilling

31
July 2023
Clock
4
min read

Step inside an open-plan office and you’ll see a productive and versatile working environment. But what do you hear? Incoming calls, lively chats between colleagues and the occasional loud tut. While a buzzing office can mean a thriving atmosphere, many employees struggle to focus amid all that noise.

Let’s dive into your audio environment and explore how supporting a healthy sound level in your workplace can enhance employee motivation, satisfaction and productivity.

Old office
Open plan office

Open-plan working: the story so far

It wasn’t until the 1960s that open-plan offices first began to appear, and by the late 20th century, they were the norm. More businesses were embracing collaboration between colleagues – and stepping away from the hierarchy of individual offices.

And then, who can forget the pandemic – which indefinitely altered employees’ relationships with the office? Nowadays, workplaces have to support a fluctuating and flexible workforce who can slot in (and out) while maintaining fluidity across operations.

What are the benefits of open-plan office spaces?

Generally speaking, the following are the touted benefits. But is this the case for everyone in your business?

  • Better colleague connections
  • Easier communication
  • More motivating
  • Natural collaboration
  • Increased learning opportunities

According to CIPD,

more than 3/4 of employers now offer hybrid working,

leaving leaders tasked with redefining the very purpose of the office scratching their heads...

Opening up conversations, but at what cost?

Have you ever walked into an open-plan office and experienced that uneasy sense of disturbing the peace? Or have you ever tried to concentrate while your colleagues are chatting around you? A mix of needs can cause conflict – and relationships can suffer.

Strip it back, and it’s clear. Yes, we design open-plan offices to accommodate conversation, congregation and collaboration. But open plan often does the opposite and hinders positive communication. Are you overlooking the most elementary aspect of human interaction – and a happy and productive team?

When workplace sounds become disruptive

Noise levels can have a significant impact on how we work. Here are some common challenges.

Privacy for the minority

Most employees need privacy, whether for confidentiality, sensitivity or simply to focus in a busy office. Traditionally, senior staff retreat to cellular offices. However, these spaces tend to be out of bounds for everyone else. This ‘privacy for some but not for all’ culture – and office set-up – puts up barriers for employees who also need peace and quiet to do their job.

A University of California study noted it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain concentration after a disruption... imagine that happening several times a day!

Turning the volume down at home

During the pandemic, most of us worked from home. It became the norm, and while there were many downsides, a huge positive was being able to better control our environments, specifically noise levels.

Practically, this is a big deal. We realised home-working could support our roles. Let’s take video calls. You’ve got to find a quiet space to take a video call, but open-plan offices don’t facilitate that. So, employees choose to stay at home, where they won’t be disturbed. While working from home is championed as part of a hybrid working model, many businesses want to avoid negative motivators such as a ‘noisy office’ being the reason why employees prefer to work from home. You need positive motivators for both sides.

According to Leesman, the workplace effectiveness measurement specialist, just 30% of office occupants pre-COVID were happy with the noise levels in their workplace.

In his white paper on performance loss in open-plan offices, Paul Roelofsen states that noise can also negatively influence memory – key for any kind of knowledge work.

Conversation noise makes memory retention more difficult, and other sorts of noises are disruptive but to a lesser extent. The paper explains that the individual compensates and subdues background noises with greater concentration levels. This results in increased tiredness and lack of comprehension and attention, which impacts on productivity and mental wellbeing. (Russell 1999).

With quantifiable performance losses of up to 45% (Hongisto 2005), not to mention the short- and long-term effects caused by undue stress and fatigue, it’s a wonder acoustics have been compromised for so long, all in the name of space efficiency. 


What's noisy to you...

While some common noises will trigger employees, there will always be exceptions. You might be able to stick your headphones in and deep dive into report writing, but your colleague might find headphones even more distracting than the printer noisily churning out 456 sales brochures. 

Your workforce is diverse – and you will have neurodiversity to consider. An audio environment a neurotypical person finds comfortable may well differ from an audio environment a neurodiverse person finds comfortable. From increased sensory sensitivity to anxiety and stress, noise impacts us all differently and is a major factor in employee dissatisfaction.

Frog's London, Shoreditch office

How do you solve the sound challenge?

You’ll never rid a workspace of sound, and neither would you want to. But you can proactively manage noise levels so employees are as comfortable as possible. Let’s look at ways you can support a healthy noise level in your workplace.

Graphic - everyone is different

Sound-soak solutions

At home, we have more sound-absorbent surfaces, such as curtains, upholstery, soft furnishing, carpets and plants. Yet the modern office tends to be more spartan and utilitarian. With hard surfaces – desks, metal storage cabinets, glass partitions and hard-plastic computer equipment –  sound waves travel freely across the space.

However, absorbent surfaces are returning to the office, as we better understand their role in sound absorption. Once seen as luxury additions, high-backed sofas, acoustic pods, sound baffles and contemporary indoor planting, such as green walls, are finding their place in the modern open-plan office. The boost to the employee environment is huge, with disruption dwindling and calls and conversations happening in privacy.

Focused booths at Acacium's London Office
Focused booths from Acacium's London HQ.
Private phone booths from Entain's office
Private phone booths from Entain's next-level office.

Travelling sound: the technicalities

If you’re interested in the ‘how’, keep reading...

Absorbent materials conventionally take two forms: fibrous or open-cell foam. In fibrous materials (cotton, jute, silk, wool, linen), sound waves force the fibres to bend, which generates heat. The conversion of acoustic energy into heat energy results in sound absorption.

With open-celled foam (seat cushions, upholstered furniture, sound-absorption panels), sound waves push air through the narrow passages. This results in a loss of sound energy and creates heat energy.

Office environments with hard surfaces can cause sound issues. Speech can sound muffled and muddy, too. Typically, you want to avoid a high-reverberation sound. Rooms designed for conversation (meeting rooms, for example) need a low reverberation time of ≤1 second, meaning more fibrous and/or open-cell foam materials.

Sound absorption classes infographic

Categorising absorbent materials for your office

Absorbent materials are rated A to E, where A is highly absorbent and E is almost fully reflective. Material consistency, thickness and fibrosity all play a part in their absorption coefficient.

When thinking about office design, it's vital that you consider how sound will play a role in the different areas of your workspace. Some areas might require more privacy like meeting rooms, whereas social spaces will likely be a hive of activity at times. These factors should all come into play when selecting the kind of materials you need for each of the different areas of your office.

Silence is golden?

Silence isn’t always golden. Think about it. How often do you put on music, the radio or a podcast for background noise while doing a task? It’s the same for a lot of people: ‘deafening silence’ can be disruptive and counterproductive.

What's the right level of background noise?

Background noise level graphic

Good vibrations

Certain sounds can disrupt employees’ ability to get things done – noisy printers, phones ringing, street sounds, thumping footsteps and loud conversations. However, good sounds can have a very different impact on productivity and mental well-being. Businesses considering how to attract their staff back to the office report a lack of buzz or atmosphere, which is a challenge if office occupancy is low.

How many of us retreat to a busy coffee shop or find a cosy nook and make calls from there? In this context, background sound never seems to be problematic. 

There are apps that recreate the office atmosphere. Who needs a real office when you can turn up the chatter, dial down the phone rings or listen to (digital) rainfall? If office numbers are initially low, creating a buzz is vital. 

Workplace soundtrack 

Evidence suggests listening to music improves productivity. 

A 2019 survey of 2,000 Britons found around half regularly listen to music while they work, with two-fifths believing it helps them get more done.

Headphones are now standard work accessories, and productivity playlists rack up millions of views on streaming apps. Therefore, some companies have started broadcasting music across the entire workplace. 

However, music type can have an impact on how your employees feel. Research shows listening to upbeat, complex music can help staff stay alert and motivated while performing repetitive tasks. However, while lyrics can be a powerful motivator, they can be distracting and so employees should avoid their favourite tracks. One study found a decrease in performance while listening to songs characterised as ‘familiar vocal music’. 

Playlists for productivity

Music has the power to influence how we work. You may want to select soft music with a slow tempo to accompany focused work and listen to something more upbeat when searching for ‘Monday Motivation’ or celebrating the end of a busy week in the office.

Optimum conditions for concentration employee guide:

Give this guide to your employees to help them select music that supports their productivity.

Graphic explaining playlists for productivity

“Beyond providing background noise, music has been shown to improve both productivity and cognitive performance, especially in adults. Listening to music can help people manage anxiety, become motivated and stay productive. You just need to know how to make the right playlist.”

Cass Balzer

Everyone is different: neurodiversity and office sound

While some common noises will trigger employees, there will always be exceptions. You might be able to stick your headphones in and deep dive into report writing, but your colleague might find headphones even more distracting than the printer noisily churning out 456 sales brochures.

What is neurodiversity graphic

Your workforce is diverse – and you will have neurodiversity to consider. An audio environment a neurotypical person finds comfortable may well differ from an audio environment a neurodiverse person finds comfortable. From increased sensory sensitivity to anxiety and stress, noise impacts us all differently and is a major factor in employee satisfaction.

It’s essential you understand your employees as individuals and their unique audio needs. Consider the following:

  • Quiet zones to prevent sensory overload and accommodate solo-focused work
  • Social and collaborative spaces to support extroversion
  • Low-traffic areas to reduce social anxiety
  • Areas with sound, light and temperature control
  • An array of soundscapes

We’re all ears 

After a couple of years working remotely, expectations have changed, and hybrid working is the norm now. However, we know how vital a great workplace environment is to motivation, satisfaction and business productivity. Employers who invest in improving the workplace experience – such as making sound quality a priority – are the ones who will attract and retain talent within their organisations. 

Our top 10 acoustic considerations:

  1. Take the opportunity to add some space to your workplace. Fewer desks = better acoustics.
  2. Acknowledge the need for a level of background noise or hubbub to ‘absorb’ conversation – don’t try and remove all sound! 
  3. Encourage individuals to take responsibility for their noise levels – create an understanding and considerate culture.
  4. Put in some informal rules about what specific spaces could/should be used for.
  5. We all work differently – some people find headphones enable them to get their best work done. Others need a quiet space. Let your people choose what works for them.
  6. Consider acoustic performance from the outset and integrate it into the design scope. Invest in plenty of sound-soak materials rather than hard dividers. 
  7. Provide suitable semi-enclosed and enclosed settings for people to retreat to when the need for focus work or more collaborative activity arises, for example, phone booths and 1:1 spaces that are sound-insulated for privacy. 
  8. Provide alternatives where teams can gather and have permission to be noisy! 
  9. Empower your people to choose where they do and don’t work in the office to best suit their activity.
  10. Ensure working from home is still an option – sometimes, it can be the best place to concentrate. 

Time to tune into change?

While sound in the workplace is inevitable, there is so much you can do to make it healthy and comfortable and support productivity. From sound-absorbent materials to rethinking your zones, sometimes the simplest changes can have the biggest impact.

Above all, remember everyone is different! So, if there is one thing you do, it’s assess your employees as individuals and create adaptive workspaces that meet their diverse needs. 

Let’s talk sound solutions

Our team is always happy to discuss how we can help with your workspace sound solutions. You can get in touch with us here.


Download for free now

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

SHARE

Making Sense(s) of the Workplace: Sound

Author:

Dan Pilling

31
July 2023
Clock
4
min read

Step inside an open-plan office and you’ll see a productive and versatile working environment. But what do you hear? Incoming calls, lively chats between colleagues and the occasional loud tut. While a buzzing office can mean a thriving atmosphere, many employees struggle to focus amid all that noise.

Let’s dive into your audio environment and explore how supporting a healthy sound level in your workplace can enhance employee motivation, satisfaction and productivity.

Old office
Open plan office

Open-plan working: the story so far

It wasn’t until the 1960s that open-plan offices first began to appear, and by the late 20th century, they were the norm. More businesses were embracing collaboration between colleagues – and stepping away from the hierarchy of individual offices.

And then, who can forget the pandemic – which indefinitely altered employees’ relationships with the office? Nowadays, workplaces have to support a fluctuating and flexible workforce who can slot in (and out) while maintaining fluidity across operations.

What are the benefits of open-plan office spaces?

Generally speaking, the following are the touted benefits. But is this the case for everyone in your business?

  • Better colleague connections
  • Easier communication
  • More motivating
  • Natural collaboration
  • Increased learning opportunities

According to CIPD,

more than 3/4 of employers now offer hybrid working,

leaving leaders tasked with redefining the very purpose of the office scratching their heads...

Opening up conversations, but at what cost?

Have you ever walked into an open-plan office and experienced that uneasy sense of disturbing the peace? Or have you ever tried to concentrate while your colleagues are chatting around you? A mix of needs can cause conflict – and relationships can suffer.

Strip it back, and it’s clear. Yes, we design open-plan offices to accommodate conversation, congregation and collaboration. But open plan often does the opposite and hinders positive communication. Are you overlooking the most elementary aspect of human interaction – and a happy and productive team?

When workplace sounds become disruptive

Noise levels can have a significant impact on how we work. Here are some common challenges.

Privacy for the minority

Most employees need privacy, whether for confidentiality, sensitivity or simply to focus in a busy office. Traditionally, senior staff retreat to cellular offices. However, these spaces tend to be out of bounds for everyone else. This ‘privacy for some but not for all’ culture – and office set-up – puts up barriers for employees who also need peace and quiet to do their job.

A University of California study noted it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain concentration after a disruption... imagine that happening several times a day!

Turning the volume down at home

During the pandemic, most of us worked from home. It became the norm, and while there were many downsides, a huge positive was being able to better control our environments, specifically noise levels.

Practically, this is a big deal. We realised home-working could support our roles. Let’s take video calls. You’ve got to find a quiet space to take a video call, but open-plan offices don’t facilitate that. So, employees choose to stay at home, where they won’t be disturbed. While working from home is championed as part of a hybrid working model, many businesses want to avoid negative motivators such as a ‘noisy office’ being the reason why employees prefer to work from home. You need positive motivators for both sides.

According to Leesman, the workplace effectiveness measurement specialist, just 30% of office occupants pre-COVID were happy with the noise levels in their workplace.

In his white paper on performance loss in open-plan offices, Paul Roelofsen states that noise can also negatively influence memory – key for any kind of knowledge work.

Conversation noise makes memory retention more difficult, and other sorts of noises are disruptive but to a lesser extent. The paper explains that the individual compensates and subdues background noises with greater concentration levels. This results in increased tiredness and lack of comprehension and attention, which impacts on productivity and mental wellbeing. (Russell 1999).

With quantifiable performance losses of up to 45% (Hongisto 2005), not to mention the short- and long-term effects caused by undue stress and fatigue, it’s a wonder acoustics have been compromised for so long, all in the name of space efficiency. 


What's noisy to you...

While some common noises will trigger employees, there will always be exceptions. You might be able to stick your headphones in and deep dive into report writing, but your colleague might find headphones even more distracting than the printer noisily churning out 456 sales brochures. 

Your workforce is diverse – and you will have neurodiversity to consider. An audio environment a neurotypical person finds comfortable may well differ from an audio environment a neurodiverse person finds comfortable. From increased sensory sensitivity to anxiety and stress, noise impacts us all differently and is a major factor in employee dissatisfaction.

Frog's London, Shoreditch office

How do you solve the sound challenge?

You’ll never rid a workspace of sound, and neither would you want to. But you can proactively manage noise levels so employees are as comfortable as possible. Let’s look at ways you can support a healthy noise level in your workplace.

Graphic - everyone is different

Sound-soak solutions

At home, we have more sound-absorbent surfaces, such as curtains, upholstery, soft furnishing, carpets and plants. Yet the modern office tends to be more spartan and utilitarian. With hard surfaces – desks, metal storage cabinets, glass partitions and hard-plastic computer equipment –  sound waves travel freely across the space.

However, absorbent surfaces are returning to the office, as we better understand their role in sound absorption. Once seen as luxury additions, high-backed sofas, acoustic pods, sound baffles and contemporary indoor planting, such as green walls, are finding their place in the modern open-plan office. The boost to the employee environment is huge, with disruption dwindling and calls and conversations happening in privacy.

Focused booths at Acacium's London Office
Focused booths from Acacium's London HQ.
Private phone booths from Entain's office
Private phone booths from Entain's next-level office.

Travelling sound: the technicalities

If you’re interested in the ‘how’, keep reading...

Absorbent materials conventionally take two forms: fibrous or open-cell foam. In fibrous materials (cotton, jute, silk, wool, linen), sound waves force the fibres to bend, which generates heat. The conversion of acoustic energy into heat energy results in sound absorption.

With open-celled foam (seat cushions, upholstered furniture, sound-absorption panels), sound waves push air through the narrow passages. This results in a loss of sound energy and creates heat energy.

Office environments with hard surfaces can cause sound issues. Speech can sound muffled and muddy, too. Typically, you want to avoid a high-reverberation sound. Rooms designed for conversation (meeting rooms, for example) need a low reverberation time of ≤1 second, meaning more fibrous and/or open-cell foam materials.

Sound absorption classes infographic

Categorising absorbent materials for your office

Absorbent materials are rated A to E, where A is highly absorbent and E is almost fully reflective. Material consistency, thickness and fibrosity all play a part in their absorption coefficient.

When thinking about office design, it's vital that you consider how sound will play a role in the different areas of your workspace. Some areas might require more privacy like meeting rooms, whereas social spaces will likely be a hive of activity at times. These factors should all come into play when selecting the kind of materials you need for each of the different areas of your office.

Silence is golden?

Silence isn’t always golden. Think about it. How often do you put on music, the radio or a podcast for background noise while doing a task? It’s the same for a lot of people: ‘deafening silence’ can be disruptive and counterproductive.

What's the right level of background noise?

Background noise level graphic

Good vibrations

Certain sounds can disrupt employees’ ability to get things done – noisy printers, phones ringing, street sounds, thumping footsteps and loud conversations. However, good sounds can have a very different impact on productivity and mental well-being. Businesses considering how to attract their staff back to the office report a lack of buzz or atmosphere, which is a challenge if office occupancy is low.

How many of us retreat to a busy coffee shop or find a cosy nook and make calls from there? In this context, background sound never seems to be problematic. 

There are apps that recreate the office atmosphere. Who needs a real office when you can turn up the chatter, dial down the phone rings or listen to (digital) rainfall? If office numbers are initially low, creating a buzz is vital. 

Workplace soundtrack 

Evidence suggests listening to music improves productivity. 

A 2019 survey of 2,000 Britons found around half regularly listen to music while they work, with two-fifths believing it helps them get more done.

Headphones are now standard work accessories, and productivity playlists rack up millions of views on streaming apps. Therefore, some companies have started broadcasting music across the entire workplace. 

However, music type can have an impact on how your employees feel. Research shows listening to upbeat, complex music can help staff stay alert and motivated while performing repetitive tasks. However, while lyrics can be a powerful motivator, they can be distracting and so employees should avoid their favourite tracks. One study found a decrease in performance while listening to songs characterised as ‘familiar vocal music’. 

Playlists for productivity

Music has the power to influence how we work. You may want to select soft music with a slow tempo to accompany focused work and listen to something more upbeat when searching for ‘Monday Motivation’ or celebrating the end of a busy week in the office.

Optimum conditions for concentration employee guide:

Give this guide to your employees to help them select music that supports their productivity.

Graphic explaining playlists for productivity

“Beyond providing background noise, music has been shown to improve both productivity and cognitive performance, especially in adults. Listening to music can help people manage anxiety, become motivated and stay productive. You just need to know how to make the right playlist.”

Cass Balzer

Everyone is different: neurodiversity and office sound

While some common noises will trigger employees, there will always be exceptions. You might be able to stick your headphones in and deep dive into report writing, but your colleague might find headphones even more distracting than the printer noisily churning out 456 sales brochures.

What is neurodiversity graphic

Your workforce is diverse – and you will have neurodiversity to consider. An audio environment a neurotypical person finds comfortable may well differ from an audio environment a neurodiverse person finds comfortable. From increased sensory sensitivity to anxiety and stress, noise impacts us all differently and is a major factor in employee satisfaction.

It’s essential you understand your employees as individuals and their unique audio needs. Consider the following:

  • Quiet zones to prevent sensory overload and accommodate solo-focused work
  • Social and collaborative spaces to support extroversion
  • Low-traffic areas to reduce social anxiety
  • Areas with sound, light and temperature control
  • An array of soundscapes

We’re all ears 

After a couple of years working remotely, expectations have changed, and hybrid working is the norm now. However, we know how vital a great workplace environment is to motivation, satisfaction and business productivity. Employers who invest in improving the workplace experience – such as making sound quality a priority – are the ones who will attract and retain talent within their organisations. 

Our top 10 acoustic considerations:

  1. Take the opportunity to add some space to your workplace. Fewer desks = better acoustics.
  2. Acknowledge the need for a level of background noise or hubbub to ‘absorb’ conversation – don’t try and remove all sound! 
  3. Encourage individuals to take responsibility for their noise levels – create an understanding and considerate culture.
  4. Put in some informal rules about what specific spaces could/should be used for.
  5. We all work differently – some people find headphones enable them to get their best work done. Others need a quiet space. Let your people choose what works for them.
  6. Consider acoustic performance from the outset and integrate it into the design scope. Invest in plenty of sound-soak materials rather than hard dividers. 
  7. Provide suitable semi-enclosed and enclosed settings for people to retreat to when the need for focus work or more collaborative activity arises, for example, phone booths and 1:1 spaces that are sound-insulated for privacy. 
  8. Provide alternatives where teams can gather and have permission to be noisy! 
  9. Empower your people to choose where they do and don’t work in the office to best suit their activity.
  10. Ensure working from home is still an option – sometimes, it can be the best place to concentrate. 

Time to tune into change?

While sound in the workplace is inevitable, there is so much you can do to make it healthy and comfortable and support productivity. From sound-absorbent materials to rethinking your zones, sometimes the simplest changes can have the biggest impact.

Above all, remember everyone is different! So, if there is one thing you do, it’s assess your employees as individuals and create adaptive workspaces that meet their diverse needs. 

Let’s talk sound solutions

Our team is always happy to discuss how we can help with your workspace sound solutions. You can get in touch with us here.


Download for free now

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Hero Image Workplace sound-off

SHARE

Step inside an open-plan office and you’ll see a productive and versatile working environment. But what do you hear? Incoming calls, lively chats between colleagues and the occasional loud tut. While a buzzing office can mean a thriving atmosphere, many employees struggle to focus amid all that noise.

Let’s dive into your audio environment and explore how supporting a healthy sound level in your workplace can enhance employee motivation, satisfaction and productivity.

Old office
Open plan office

Open-plan working: the story so far

It wasn’t until the 1960s that open-plan offices first began to appear, and by the late 20th century, they were the norm. More businesses were embracing collaboration between colleagues – and stepping away from the hierarchy of individual offices.

And then, who can forget the pandemic – which indefinitely altered employees’ relationships with the office? Nowadays, workplaces have to support a fluctuating and flexible workforce who can slot in (and out) while maintaining fluidity across operations.

What are the benefits of open-plan office spaces?

Generally speaking, the following are the touted benefits. But is this the case for everyone in your business?

  • Better colleague connections
  • Easier communication
  • More motivating
  • Natural collaboration
  • Increased learning opportunities

According to CIPD,

more than 3/4 of employers now offer hybrid working,

leaving leaders tasked with redefining the very purpose of the office scratching their heads...

Opening up conversations, but at what cost?

Have you ever walked into an open-plan office and experienced that uneasy sense of disturbing the peace? Or have you ever tried to concentrate while your colleagues are chatting around you? A mix of needs can cause conflict – and relationships can suffer.

Strip it back, and it’s clear. Yes, we design open-plan offices to accommodate conversation, congregation and collaboration. But open plan often does the opposite and hinders positive communication. Are you overlooking the most elementary aspect of human interaction – and a happy and productive team?

When workplace sounds become disruptive

Noise levels can have a significant impact on how we work. Here are some common challenges.

Privacy for the minority

Most employees need privacy, whether for confidentiality, sensitivity or simply to focus in a busy office. Traditionally, senior staff retreat to cellular offices. However, these spaces tend to be out of bounds for everyone else. This ‘privacy for some but not for all’ culture – and office set-up – puts up barriers for employees who also need peace and quiet to do their job.

A University of California study noted it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain concentration after a disruption... imagine that happening several times a day!

Turning the volume down at home

During the pandemic, most of us worked from home. It became the norm, and while there were many downsides, a huge positive was being able to better control our environments, specifically noise levels.

Practically, this is a big deal. We realised home-working could support our roles. Let’s take video calls. You’ve got to find a quiet space to take a video call, but open-plan offices don’t facilitate that. So, employees choose to stay at home, where they won’t be disturbed. While working from home is championed as part of a hybrid working model, many businesses want to avoid negative motivators such as a ‘noisy office’ being the reason why employees prefer to work from home. You need positive motivators for both sides.

According to Leesman, the workplace effectiveness measurement specialist, just 30% of office occupants pre-COVID were happy with the noise levels in their workplace.

In his white paper on performance loss in open-plan offices, Paul Roelofsen states that noise can also negatively influence memory – key for any kind of knowledge work.

Conversation noise makes memory retention more difficult, and other sorts of noises are disruptive but to a lesser extent. The paper explains that the individual compensates and subdues background noises with greater concentration levels. This results in increased tiredness and lack of comprehension and attention, which impacts on productivity and mental wellbeing. (Russell 1999).

With quantifiable performance losses of up to 45% (Hongisto 2005), not to mention the short- and long-term effects caused by undue stress and fatigue, it’s a wonder acoustics have been compromised for so long, all in the name of space efficiency. 


What's noisy to you...

While some common noises will trigger employees, there will always be exceptions. You might be able to stick your headphones in and deep dive into report writing, but your colleague might find headphones even more distracting than the printer noisily churning out 456 sales brochures. 

Your workforce is diverse – and you will have neurodiversity to consider. An audio environment a neurotypical person finds comfortable may well differ from an audio environment a neurodiverse person finds comfortable. From increased sensory sensitivity to anxiety and stress, noise impacts us all differently and is a major factor in employee dissatisfaction.

Frog's London, Shoreditch office

How do you solve the sound challenge?

You’ll never rid a workspace of sound, and neither would you want to. But you can proactively manage noise levels so employees are as comfortable as possible. Let’s look at ways you can support a healthy noise level in your workplace.

Graphic - everyone is different

Sound-soak solutions

At home, we have more sound-absorbent surfaces, such as curtains, upholstery, soft furnishing, carpets and plants. Yet the modern office tends to be more spartan and utilitarian. With hard surfaces – desks, metal storage cabinets, glass partitions and hard-plastic computer equipment –  sound waves travel freely across the space.

However, absorbent surfaces are returning to the office, as we better understand their role in sound absorption. Once seen as luxury additions, high-backed sofas, acoustic pods, sound baffles and contemporary indoor planting, such as green walls, are finding their place in the modern open-plan office. The boost to the employee environment is huge, with disruption dwindling and calls and conversations happening in privacy.

Focused booths at Acacium's London Office
Focused booths from Acacium's London HQ.
Private phone booths from Entain's office
Private phone booths from Entain's next-level office.

Travelling sound: the technicalities

If you’re interested in the ‘how’, keep reading...

Absorbent materials conventionally take two forms: fibrous or open-cell foam. In fibrous materials (cotton, jute, silk, wool, linen), sound waves force the fibres to bend, which generates heat. The conversion of acoustic energy into heat energy results in sound absorption.

With open-celled foam (seat cushions, upholstered furniture, sound-absorption panels), sound waves push air through the narrow passages. This results in a loss of sound energy and creates heat energy.

Office environments with hard surfaces can cause sound issues. Speech can sound muffled and muddy, too. Typically, you want to avoid a high-reverberation sound. Rooms designed for conversation (meeting rooms, for example) need a low reverberation time of ≤1 second, meaning more fibrous and/or open-cell foam materials.

Sound absorption classes infographic

Categorising absorbent materials for your office

Absorbent materials are rated A to E, where A is highly absorbent and E is almost fully reflective. Material consistency, thickness and fibrosity all play a part in their absorption coefficient.

When thinking about office design, it's vital that you consider how sound will play a role in the different areas of your workspace. Some areas might require more privacy like meeting rooms, whereas social spaces will likely be a hive of activity at times. These factors should all come into play when selecting the kind of materials you need for each of the different areas of your office.

Silence is golden?

Silence isn’t always golden. Think about it. How often do you put on music, the radio or a podcast for background noise while doing a task? It’s the same for a lot of people: ‘deafening silence’ can be disruptive and counterproductive.

What's the right level of background noise?

Background noise level graphic

Good vibrations

Certain sounds can disrupt employees’ ability to get things done – noisy printers, phones ringing, street sounds, thumping footsteps and loud conversations. However, good sounds can have a very different impact on productivity and mental well-being. Businesses considering how to attract their staff back to the office report a lack of buzz or atmosphere, which is a challenge if office occupancy is low.

How many of us retreat to a busy coffee shop or find a cosy nook and make calls from there? In this context, background sound never seems to be problematic. 

There are apps that recreate the office atmosphere. Who needs a real office when you can turn up the chatter, dial down the phone rings or listen to (digital) rainfall? If office numbers are initially low, creating a buzz is vital. 

Workplace soundtrack 

Evidence suggests listening to music improves productivity. 

A 2019 survey of 2,000 Britons found around half regularly listen to music while they work, with two-fifths believing it helps them get more done.

Headphones are now standard work accessories, and productivity playlists rack up millions of views on streaming apps. Therefore, some companies have started broadcasting music across the entire workplace. 

However, music type can have an impact on how your employees feel. Research shows listening to upbeat, complex music can help staff stay alert and motivated while performing repetitive tasks. However, while lyrics can be a powerful motivator, they can be distracting and so employees should avoid their favourite tracks. One study found a decrease in performance while listening to songs characterised as ‘familiar vocal music’. 

Playlists for productivity

Music has the power to influence how we work. You may want to select soft music with a slow tempo to accompany focused work and listen to something more upbeat when searching for ‘Monday Motivation’ or celebrating the end of a busy week in the office.

Optimum conditions for concentration employee guide:

Give this guide to your employees to help them select music that supports their productivity.

Graphic explaining playlists for productivity

“Beyond providing background noise, music has been shown to improve both productivity and cognitive performance, especially in adults. Listening to music can help people manage anxiety, become motivated and stay productive. You just need to know how to make the right playlist.”

Cass Balzer

Everyone is different: neurodiversity and office sound

While some common noises will trigger employees, there will always be exceptions. You might be able to stick your headphones in and deep dive into report writing, but your colleague might find headphones even more distracting than the printer noisily churning out 456 sales brochures.

What is neurodiversity graphic

Your workforce is diverse – and you will have neurodiversity to consider. An audio environment a neurotypical person finds comfortable may well differ from an audio environment a neurodiverse person finds comfortable. From increased sensory sensitivity to anxiety and stress, noise impacts us all differently and is a major factor in employee satisfaction.

It’s essential you understand your employees as individuals and their unique audio needs. Consider the following:

  • Quiet zones to prevent sensory overload and accommodate solo-focused work
  • Social and collaborative spaces to support extroversion
  • Low-traffic areas to reduce social anxiety
  • Areas with sound, light and temperature control
  • An array of soundscapes

We’re all ears 

After a couple of years working remotely, expectations have changed, and hybrid working is the norm now. However, we know how vital a great workplace environment is to motivation, satisfaction and business productivity. Employers who invest in improving the workplace experience – such as making sound quality a priority – are the ones who will attract and retain talent within their organisations. 

Our top 10 acoustic considerations:

  1. Take the opportunity to add some space to your workplace. Fewer desks = better acoustics.
  2. Acknowledge the need for a level of background noise or hubbub to ‘absorb’ conversation – don’t try and remove all sound! 
  3. Encourage individuals to take responsibility for their noise levels – create an understanding and considerate culture.
  4. Put in some informal rules about what specific spaces could/should be used for.
  5. We all work differently – some people find headphones enable them to get their best work done. Others need a quiet space. Let your people choose what works for them.
  6. Consider acoustic performance from the outset and integrate it into the design scope. Invest in plenty of sound-soak materials rather than hard dividers. 
  7. Provide suitable semi-enclosed and enclosed settings for people to retreat to when the need for focus work or more collaborative activity arises, for example, phone booths and 1:1 spaces that are sound-insulated for privacy. 
  8. Provide alternatives where teams can gather and have permission to be noisy! 
  9. Empower your people to choose where they do and don’t work in the office to best suit their activity.
  10. Ensure working from home is still an option – sometimes, it can be the best place to concentrate. 

Time to tune into change?

While sound in the workplace is inevitable, there is so much you can do to make it healthy and comfortable and support productivity. From sound-absorbent materials to rethinking your zones, sometimes the simplest changes can have the biggest impact.

Above all, remember everyone is different! So, if there is one thing you do, it’s assess your employees as individuals and create adaptive workspaces that meet their diverse needs. 

Let’s talk sound solutions

Our team is always happy to discuss how we can help with your workspace sound solutions. You can get in touch with us here.


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