Come on, feel the noise

The latest FX seminar had design experts wrestling with workplace acoustics, the psychological and sensory effects of open-plan offices and why choice needs to be placed far higher on the design agenda.


Words by Veronica Simpson

Contemporary office design has lost its way. In the rush to embrace more cost-effective and space-efficient open-plan workspaces it seems quality of working life has been severely depleted for the majority. A staggering 85 per cent of the 10,500 open-plan office workers surveyed by IPSOS were dissatisfied with their workplaces, according to its 2014 Survey of European, North American and Asian office workers, commissioned by Steelcase.

Respondents reported losing up to 85 minutes per day due to distractions and 31 per cent reported having to leave the office in order to complete work, due to lack of private space. Research by Canada Life Group Insurance in 2014 also found that open-plan office workers were more than twice as likely to take sick days than home workers. The open-plan office revolution is taking efficiency in the wrong direction, too: Gensler's 2013 survey of workplace effectiveness in the USA revealed that it had fallen by six per cent in five years.


So what does the modern office need to offer in order to minimise distraction and maximise comfort? Choice is the key ingredient, according to a round table discussion organised by FX magazine, sponsored by Ecophon, and hosted by BDG Architecture + Design in its new airy new office overlooking the Thames.

The problem is, one person's 'lively background hum' is another person's 'deafening row' when it comes to working preferences. The real conflict in going from cellular office space to open-plan seems to be the lack of control people have in tailoring their workplace to suit their own needs. Acoustics specialist Ecophon has been trying to address this, in research it is currently conducting with workplace psychologist Nigel Oseland.


The new BDG studios inside the iconic Sea Containers house, Southbank London, hosted the FX Ecophon office design seminar.

Paige Hodsman, Ecophon: 'We have spent an awful lot of time understanding the physical measurement of aspects of acoustics. But I realise, looking back on post-occupancy evaluations (POE), that acoustics persist as a problem. Where have we gone wrong? What's missing? The physical measurement is one thing but there's this psychological and physiological element of humans that's been ignored. It's just as important, if not more so.

We did a literature review last year of nearly 200 papers to try and understand how people respond to noise. We realised that your personality has a... lot to do with it. Looking at introverts and extroverts as a broad category, they respond differently to noise. But there's a lot more to it than that.'

Come on, feel the noise

Paige Hodsman, Ecophon Concept Developer

Nick Pell, Aukett Swank: 'Personality plays a very important part. But mood is also very important. Ultimately, our view is that variety and choice is fundamentally what we need to provide.'

Theresa Dowling, FX editor: 'Nigel Oseland's paper [Creating the Productive Workplace: A Psychological Perspective] has some really interesting definitions. For example, internal personalities are more self-motivated and better suited to flexible working. Externals require more supervision. People doing menial jobs need more stimulation around the office, visual stimulation or noise. But go too far and then that's a distraction. Do you remember when Yahoo insisted that people stop working from home and come back into the office?'

Come on, feel the noise

Paige Hodsman

Gary Wheeler, Wheeler Kanik: 'It felt it had lost the knowledge sharing, the exchange of ideas. Everyone was out doing things and not sharing what they'd learned.'

Cherrill Scheer, CSA: 'With Google it's the opposite. I've been round a lot of the offices here, and they are all overseas people and young. Usually they are living in a bedsit and Google makes everything available so they spend all their time in the office: they get free breakfast, they have a gym and social space and dancing and they don't ever want to go home except to sleep.'


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