How acoustics affect productivity in office environments

business meeting office acoustics

Office acoustics refers to the qualities of a room (such as its shape or size) that make it easy or difficult for people inside to hear clearly.

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A fully-functioning, productive office requires noise. In fact, the sound of silence can be inhibitive; some would even argue deafening. At the risk of quoting more Simon and Garfunkel, I think we can all establish that an element of noise is necessary to a work environment that fosters creativity and collaboration.

But what happens when your office acoustics affect productivity? Those conversations that catch your unwanted attention; The constant sound of the telephone; the general ‘buzz’ of the workplace. Before you know it, a twenty-minute task becomes an hour-long assignment. 

That is when noise affects productivity in office environments…

Productivity can be affected by noise levels within the office
A noisy office can have a dramatic effect on employees’ health and productivity

The pressure to perform

The Wellbeing at Work Study found that 99% of UK employees are expected to be high performing and that 98% of those are also required to display creativity and innovation. Whilst that pressure to perform is high, there is also an expectation for employees to feel relaxed and stress-free.

 If these expectations are to be taken seriously, businesses need to provide a culture that supports these expectations, allowing workers to reach their full potential. 

Whilst many factors are at play in creating a high-performing, stress-free environment, the purpose of this blog is to highlight the way in which unwanted noise can have a dramatic impact on productivity.

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Noise as a psychological stress

Numerous studies have confirmed that noise is an ambient stressor relating to job satisfaction in the workplace and is a primary cause of reduction in productivity. 

This can contribute to stress and illness, which, in turn, can also contribute to absenteeism and turnover in staff. 

The cost implications of this are clear, with poor mental health across the UK costing employers £30 billion a year.

There can hardly be anything more important than our health and wellbeing. This is also a priority for most employers. A healthy, happy workforce is a key component of a productive, successful business in the long-term. 

Office acoustics in an open-plan environment

Creativity and innovation are at the forefront of many businesses’ ethos. Open-plan offices are growing in popularity; they account for a staggering 73% of all offices in the UK!

The popularity in open-plan style has been proven to dramatically boost success rates. Google’s offices are a prime example of how collaboration in an open-plan design improves productivity. 

73% of offices in the UK are open-plan, consider your office acoustics
73% of offices in the UK are open-plan, but without carefully considered office acoustics, it can cause both communication and concentration difficulties 

However, unwanted levels of ambient noise exacerbated by an excessively reverberant environment, can cause difficulties with both communication and concentration at work. 

A 2005 survey in which 23,450 respondents from 142 buildings were included, found that occupants in private offices were significantly more satisfied with noise levels and speech privacy than those in open-plan offices.

Conflicting thoughts

Research suggests that open-plan offices are less productive than private offices, but the success of open-plan offices is clear to see. 

These conflicting viewpoints prompt the question:

Can open-plan offices thrive whilst recognising a need for noise reduction?

The answer is, of course, yes. With carefully considered office acoustics.

Start thinking acoustically

The acoustic design of an office is an often-overlooked consideration, with more attention being placed on thermal and ventilation systems. 

However, as you can see, unwanted levels of ambient noise can have a dramatic impact on both communication, concentration, and productivity. 

Strategic placement of sound-absorbing surfaces such as acoustic wall panels, acoustic ceiling tiles and soundproofing carpet underlay can contribute towards an environment that provides maximum acoustic comfort to staff.

Dedicated areas within an open-plan office for meetings or for times when extra concentration is needed, such as private booths, are also a welcomed addition.

By strengthening an employee’s feeling of privacy in an open-plan office environment, it lowers their stress levels, whilst increasing their overall satisfaction and productivity. 

Privacy booths offer great office acoustics for meetings
Privacy booths with acoustic treatment are a welcomed addition to any open-plan office

The science of sound: How does sound travel?

When a sound is created in a room such as an office, sound waves travel from the source throughout the surrounding environment. 

When the sound encounters a surface, for example,a wall or ceiling, part of it is absorbed and part of it is reflected. If a sound has been reflected, it will continue to travel until it reaches another surface. 

When energy from a number of sources accumulates, adding to the sound in a room, this is known as reverberation. 

The greater the reverberation in a room, the longer it takes for the sound to disappear. 

This is what’s causing the unpleasant noise within your office, and the reason why your productivity is not where it could or should be. 

What types of room are more susceptible to reverberation?

Rooms that contain predominantly hard, shiny surfaces are more likely to have a higher reverberation time as more sound will be reflected, rather than absorbed. 

In office environments, hard, shiny surfaces can be difficult to avoid without compromising on the office’s overall design. Large windows, for example, may provide the necessary natural lighting required for workplace productivity but can be troublesome when it comes to reverberation.  

It’s ironic to think that features of a room that are known to increase wellbeing (like windows and glass partitions, for example) can also be a direct cause of stress as they are a contributor to an excessively noisy work environment. 

Glass reflects sound causing noise to reverberate causing bad office acoustics
Large, reflective surfaces are a leading contributor to unwanted noise in the office

Don’t compromise on office acoustic design 

When people think about noise reduction or ‘soundprofing’ as it is commonly known, they are often put off by the ‘intrusive’ impact that the materials have on the aesthetic of the room.  

Your office design is important and is a reflection of your company.

There are many ways in which you can acoustically treat work environments whilst considering your office design. 

Careful placement of furniture is a good start, but if you’re looking for a more significant impact on noise reduction and office acoustics, Sound Zero offers a range of design-led solutions. 

The key point here is that there is no need to compromise on design when it comes to controlling noise in your work environment. 

How acoustics affect productivity in office environments: Conclusion

Helping to create a productive office environment is the main aim of this article.

By placing a strong emphasis on educating our audience, we aim to improve offices based on your individual design requirements.

If you would like any more information on how offices can be treated acoustically, we’d love to hear from you. 

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