The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) found that 70% of office workers believed their productivity would be higher if their office was less noisy. They also found that 81% of managers were unconcerned about office noise.
When designing an office or workspace so many factors need to be considered, from the aesthetics and light to the ergonomics and temperature. There is a massive emphasis placed on all these factors to ensure that the workers in the office are able to do their job efficiently and comfortably.
Our predominant method of communication is through speech, so why is sound so often overlooked?
Why acoustics and sound are rarely considered is a mystery. Another study, this time by Berry & Banbury in 1998, showed that the accuracy of work when exposed to a noisy office reduces by 67%. That statistic might seem high at first, but when you really think about it, it’s hard to believe it’s not more.
Firstly, consider all the noises that you encounter in an office environment. Computer noise, the buzz of printers, tapping of pens, phone rings, conversation, traffic from outside and people moving around to name a few.
There are many reasons why these affect us when we are trying to work. They are unpredictable. When we are expecting a certain sound our brain can deal with it a lot better, sounds like a printer kicking into gear or someone suddenly stomping past you cannot be pre-empted and keep your brain on constant guard. A sound with consistent qualities, (i.ebroad range of frequencies. and intensity) would be much easier to acclimate to than noise that is in some way dynamic. The tonality of a sound makes a big difference, a simple fan with a steady and low whirl will not distract us as much as a computer fan kicking into gear with a high pitched whine. This is because tonal sound are closer to representing communication and therefore we are more inclined to pay attention.
A good example of an unpredictable sound is a paper shredder. The person using it will be expecting the noise and it will not bother them at all, however the person opposite will find it incredibly stressful, because they do not have control.
Another big distracter is the ring of a phone, even if it is not our phone, the brain is life-trained to want to answer it, making it almost impossible to ignore.
The general theme is the when we have no control over the sound we get frustrated. And, not just frustrated, we get distracted and stressed too. ‘It is easier to habituate to constant noise than to variable noise.’ (Kjellberg, Landstrom, Tesarz, Soderberg, & Akerlund, 1996).
Studies have also shown that distracting noise increases the amount of errors made.
These effects will cause a drop in job satisfaction and reduced productivity. Oomen, Knowles, & Zhao (2008) showed that if noise is a dominant disturbing force in the open plan office environment, it leads to poor employee satisfaction, lower morale, decreased productivity, increased stress levels, increased absenteeism and overall increased staff turnover.
It is easy to see why this will ultimately effect the business for the worse.
This may seem like a problem that is extremely difficult to solve, but it is not. If you can bring someone in with a deep understanding of acoustics and sound, they will be able to visualise what the sound / noise is doing and how to improve the room, they can test and evaluate an office space and then work out which treatments we need to use to lower the noise of the office to a much calmer and pleasurable level.
Unfortunately, it is not as easy as simply putting a stop to the distracting sounds. Acousticians consider sound in two ways, signal and noise. Signal is something that we actively want to listen to and noise is something that is not intended for us to hear, but we can.
Our brains are able, in a lot of cases, to recognise what is noise and try to filter it out allowing you to concentrate on signals but unfortunately it does not work with all noise. As discussed already unpredictable or variable noises will still distract you.
The problem is that one person’s signal is another person’s noise. For example, two colleagues chatting next to you whilst you try to work will be noise to you but they are getting information from the signals or someone else’s phone ringing is a signal for them to pick up the phone but an irritant to you. This means you cannot just try to eliminate noise from your office because noise can be different to everyone working in the office.
There are 4 main elements to sound wave behaviour – reflection, absorption, dispersion & transmission. What’s complicated is that the behaviour varies as the frequency varies.
Reflecting sound waves off hard, dense surfaces like a brick wall gives a fast echo, reflecting the sound and increasing its energy making the sound louder. We don’t hear it as an echo since our brains add the sound to the original and use it as a cue that tells us about the space we are in. This is important as it helps our brains read the properties of the space, we are able to unconsciously suss out the size and shape of a room by hearing what reflections come back at us.
Absorption is very important, softer, air trapping surfaces are able to absorb certain frequencies (mainly mid to higher frequencies), which will then leave us with a much more satisfying and comfortable sound. Bass can also be absorbed, but this requires more careful design.
Dispersion – this is the proves of scattering sound, odd shapes and protrusions aid dispersion. The effect of dispersion is to still reflect the sound energy, but break it up, so the sound is more diffuse. This has a pleasant effect for music halls, all those ornate carvings had a real purpose.
Transmission is the process of conducting sound through types of matter. This is good if you are trying to improve communicate. Good transmitters not only carry a long way but also very quickly. Not so good if your meeting room door is a good transmitter.
There is a wide range of acoustic solutions available including ceiling treatments/acoustic panels for the walls, acoustic carpets or even something as simple as putting up bookshelves to block or absorb sound.
An office can even be too quiet in some cases, in these situations, you can use sound masking treatments like playing nature sounds or calming music to get the sound level up to the important 45-55 dB goal.
As many as 50% of occupants who regard their acoustical environment highly say that it enhances their ability to get their job done. (Jensen, Arens, & Zagreus, 2005).
Unfortunately, over the years many people have come to think of acoustic treatments as unsightly, and this has perhaps been one of the biggest factors of them being overlooked in the design phase.
However, if you are worried about how your space will look after the treatments, don’t be. Huge effort has gone into the aesthetics of acoustic products in the last few years, and there are many brands producing beautifully designed products that will actually add to the look of your office. You can even print on acoustic panels now, meaning you can customise them how you like.
There are even artists that are focusing their artwork on acoustics, using great materials with great absorption power to create beautiful pieces of art which also improve the sound of a room.
So, in conclusion, the whole idea of this blog post was to get people into the habit of thinking about acoustics and sound as much as they do with visuals and design. Yes, I do agree that a beautiful office has major benefits to staff satisfaction, but it may not be enough on its own and if the office sounds terrible and is making the employees stressed and ill, ultimately it is not doing its job. To really design a workspace to its true potential, it is vital to consider the sound as well.