Seeking a Sound Solution

Looking after the health of employees in the workplace is about much more than simply ensuring the right temperature and eliminating trip hazards. For many workers, achieving the right noise levels can make all the difference between a productive workplace and one filled with stress and anxiety…

Words from Toby Maxwell

As anyone who has worked in them can testify, noisy office buildings can result in annoyance, heightened stress levels and reduced performance. There is also evidence that stress from unwanted sounds continues to affect performance for some time after exposure to the noise.


Noise is very much a business issue. A recent analysis of 21 published studies into the impact on productivity from environmental conditions, including acoustics, found that - after accounting for other factors in the studies to do with the buildings and work activities - removing unwanted and distracting sounds can increase productivity by almost 2 per cent. That might seem like a relatively trivial level, but some experts suggest that a 1 per cent improvement in productivity may represent a saving of as much as £50 per square metre per year.


Traditional efforts to control noise in buildings have centred on physical solutions such as acoustic ceilings and vertical barriers. But the demands of 21st-century workplaces - particularly given the prevalence of open-plan offices - call for a more rounded approach, encompassing psychological, physiological and physical solutions.



According to research by office design specialist Oktra, 27% of UK staff are frustrated by a lack of privacy. Not only this, but 77% find the acoustics of their workplace unpleasant and blame noise open plan environments.

One solution is to add sound masking, which raises the background noise level in such a way that it makes specific conversations difficult to hear from more than 4.5 metres away. But Oktra suggests that there are many other considerations to take into account, such as ensuring collaboration spaces are away from work areas, reducing staff density in a space, and educating staff to avoid speaking loudly or use annoying ring tones for example.


The best office acoustic solution is ultimately about worker health, wellbeing and productivity. It requires consideration of people, the activities taking place and the physical space itself. Improvements in technology and changes to organisational cultures mean workers have more trust and freedom to work from wherever they like. The challenge is to create offices people would choose to work in and good office acoustics play a big role in this.


To ascertain how much we really know about how people are affected by office noise, Paige Hodsman, office concept developer for Ecophon and Dr Nigel Oseland, workplace specialist from WorkPlace Unlimited, reviewed over 100 research papers on the topic. The study found that along with the sounds of other people talking, things like personality, attitude, type of task and work activity have much to do with how well individuals perform in different acoustic settings.


From the literature review, several hypotheses were determined linking personality and acoustic preferences to performance. This was the first step in the research process, which has been followed by an online survey to find out more about the associations between personality types and office acoustic settings. The hope is that the results of the survey will make it possible to establish whether some of the hypotheses are viable, paving the way for further study to start in 2016.


Paige Hodsman, concept developer at acoustic solutions specialist Ecophon, said: 'We've found that the acoustic issue is something that is generally not talked about, and if there isn't the knowledge there, it becomes almost impossible to get right early.'

She adds that much is known by the experts about the physical measurements of sound and what might happen when soundwaves hit a particular wall or piece of material. But it is less clear what happens once those sounds reach the brain and the impact it subsequently has on individual behaviour - something Ecophon refers to as 'Psychoacoustics'.


'We're exploring the heart of how noise and sounds affect the health and performance of individuals. The better we can understand the individual, the better the working environment we can create, ensuring it really is fit for purpose.' She adds: 'By doing that, we can then show the implications on the bottom line for an organisation.'

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