People are noisy. Whether they mean to be or not, they just are, and working in an office environment can elevate this noise to an unbearable level which reduces productivity and generally has a negative effect on the mood in the workplace. So we should all work in silence then, right? Wrong. Silence has been proven to have the same negative effects as too much noise, so the key is to find a happy medium, and that's where acoustic solutions come in.
Let's start with the problems. Research has shown that 18.75% of time at work is lost to distractions, and seeing as 80% of companies' outgoings are wages, that means that 18.75% of all money spent on staff is being wasted due to interruptions. 70% of workers said that they could be more productive in a less noisy environment, and 72% said they were dissatisfied with their speech privacy, and were concerned that confidentiality was being breached. In addition, 64% of people said that they are interrupted in some way up to 20 times a day by their co-workers. Even if you aren't included in conversations, it's instinctive for you to process them as a passive listener, and because humans only have the bandwidth to decode 1.6 conversations at a time, it leaves little cognitive capacity for anything else.
If acoustics aren't considered in the design of your office, these are some of the problems you'll face:
- More noise disruptions for everyone.
- Lack of speech clarity in all areas.
- Possible breaches of confidentiality.
- Reduced levels of concentration for everyone.
- Increased number of mistakes, some of them major.
- Reduction in overall productivity.
- Increased staff illness/days off.
- Reduction in staff retention.
- Increased staff recruitment and training costs.
Sound affects us profoundly; it changes our heart rate, breathing, hormone secretion, brainwaves, emotions and cognition, so when it causes us to be uncomfortable, it can result in a decrease in productivity of two thirds.
So what's the solution? Well most offices work best at 50-60 decibels, but even when a noise is kept at this level it can still be distracting. There are three solutions, absorption, blocking & covering, that when used in conjunction with each other, should result in a perfect working environment.
Absorption means that some of the sound is absorbed instead of being bounced off the walls and ceilings, and can be adapted depending on the work space you're in e.g.. a call centre would need lots of absorption, but a university research department probably wouldn't. It can be achieved using wall panels that can be printed with graphics, or designed using fabrics and colours that fit your business aesthetic. Ceiling islands can also be installed above areas that are particularly noisy, such as meeting rooms, breakout spaces, or reception desks.
Blocking the sound is perhaps the easiest and most obvious way of fixing acoustics in your space. It's as simple as it sounds - you block the sound from moving through the air by installing a physical obstacle such as a desk screen barrier and, just like magic, the person opposite you can no longer hear quite so much of your conversation. Without these, the speaker affects everyone in a 24 metre radius. Another option is acoustic pods for meetings or conference calls, that have acoustically-rated glass & walls to enable private conversations and provide a quiet place for work.
Covering up unwanted conversations and other noises is where all the really clever stuff comes in. It's called 'noise masking' and can take the form of several different things; in its most basic form, it involves adding sound energy into the space to a level that is comfortable, without being intrusive.
Lots of employees think music has this effect, but your brain unconsciously processes the rhythms and words, causing distraction. Up to 30% of cognitive capacity is taken up when listening to music without lyrics, so if you're listening to radio with DJs and songs, it can be extremely grating. The masking sound must be completely random and have no discernable pattern so our brains cannot identify anything within in and become distracted, so it can either be noises such as rainfall or forest sounds, or simple frequencies which mask general office sounds.
Forward-thinking furniture designer BuzziSpace released several new acoustic products at NeoCon 2016, including a whole range of lighting. Our favourite is BuzziMoon, a pendant lamp that diffuses light across a space and adds soft illumination, and that is surrounded by a decorative acoustic ring which can be finished in a range of fabrics.
BuzziSpace also introduced an expanded range of their BuzziBlinds, which can be used to block sound in an open plan space. The blinds can now be opened or closed to varying degrees, depending on the level of blocking required for concentration on a specific task.
Further expansion of their acoustic range has resulted in the BuzziTotem and the BuzziPouf; two pieces of freestanding, moveable furniture. The Totem is an acoustic column which mimics a traditional architectural feature with a modern twist, and the Pouf can be used as a seat or a side table when added to a breakout space. Both absorb sound to provide an enhanced sound quality in shared spaces.
The results from acoustic solutions can be quite dramatic. In open-plan spaces, acoustic screens and walls mean fewer interruptions and therefore increased productivity. Employees no longer need to raise their voices to compete with each other (known as Lombard Syndrome), which helps keep noise at a comfortable level throughout the day. In closed spaces, sound masking guarantees confidentiality where necessary, but provides excellent flexibility and allows the staff to adapt more easily to changing demands.
Introducing acoustic solutions can be daunting, and it may seem like lots of work, but changes can be made to an existing space, or be installed in a new one, so that your company can provide better ways of working for your employees, as well as increasing overall productivity.