Great acoustic design in the workplace is about far more than turning down the volume

Open-plan offices are meant to encourage collaboration and contribute to a collective workplace experience, but they also come with serious drawbacks. New research claims that more than half of employees said poor office acoustic design reduces their satisfaction at work. Many feel compelled to solve the problem on their own, blocking out distraction through visits to break out spaces, taking walks outside, or listening to white noise and music on headsets or headphones. The survey of more than 600 executives and 600 employees by Oxford Economics and Plantronics set out to understand what works for employees—and what doesn’t—about open-plan layouts, and to test for disconnects between workers and their managers. The results show that threats to productivity and worker peace of mind are bigger issues than most executives realise, and most do not have the technology or strategies in place to deal with the problems. The survey found that one of the biggest issues is that employers don’t always appreciate the problems. Workers want to work, and their ability to focus without interruptions is a top priority and when it comes to office design; access to amenities like free food is far less important. However, nearly two-thirds of executives say employees are equipped with the tools they need to deal with distractions at work; but less than half of employees agree.

Good workplace design takes employee needs into consideration and facilitates activities that enhance productivity, but as the report warns; if companies are not careful, workers may turn conference rooms into de facto offices, defeating the purpose of both open-plan layouts and shared meeting spaces.

However, some businesses are already getting it right. One group of executive respondents in the survey reports more business value from technology than their peers, in terms of employee productivity and even bottom-line performance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these companies are also more likely to have taken specific steps to equip employees with the right working environment, tools, and culture.

According to the report, better office environments and workplace technology should improve productivity, engagement, and happiness at work, both for executives and their employees. And as work and life are increasingly intertwined, these changes are likely to extend to the hours outside the office.

As far as offices are concerned, hell is often other people. It is other people that are most likely to be the source of distractions, acoustic, visual and even olfactory. There isn’t a nerve you possess that somebody else can’t get on. Mobile phone ring tones regularly top surveys of the most annoying things in offices, followed by smelly food, body odour and irrelevant conversation.

What is interesting about the research in this area is that the things that cause the most stress, annoyance and distraction are those that are either irrelevant or over which people have no control. The Scandinavian researchers Anders Kjellberg and Bertil Nordstrom found in one of their studies that sudden or irrelevant noise was far more distracting than constant background noise. They also found that the noise of printers and shredders is only really annoying for the people not using the equipment.

So, volume is not the only thing we need to worry about. A 2015 analysis of 100 research papers by the environmental psychologist Dr Nigel Oseland found that just 25 percent of the effect of noise in the office could be attributed to its volume. More than half of the effect is due to psychological factors such as context and attitude, perceived control and predictability and personality type. “Noise is a psychophysical phenomenon”, he wrote, “and as long as we continue to focus on physical metrics and disregard the psychological component, we will never resolve the biggest and often ignored problem of noise in the workplace.”

Little wonder that there has always been a tug back towards the cellular since we first developed the principles of the modern office in the early part of the 20th Century. A lot of the time – both now and in the past – this hankering for four walls and a door has been a matter of status, but there are some very good reasons why people may want to lock themselves away that are nothing to do with their place in the hierarchy.

Image: Buzzispace