21 February 2014

Is your office too loud?

Experts say the right sound levels are important when it comes to staff productivity - so how can you reduce background noise?

When finding the perfect office, there’s a lot to think about – location, space, price and business facilities to name a few. One thing you probably won’t consider is noise, although experts say the right sound levels are important when it comes to staff productivity in the workplace.

If your work environment is too noisy, your employees won’t be able to concentrate and focus on the task in hand.

On the other hand, if it is so quiet, you can hear a pin drop, it may feel uncomfortable and oppressive. In an open plan office, people may feel embarrassed making business phone calls if they know it will break the silence and all their colleagues will be able to hear what they are saying.

Julian Treasure, an expert in acoustics and Chairman of The Sound Agency, told The Guardian that productivity can fall by up to two-thirds when people are struggling to complete work in a space where they can clearly hear their colleagues’ conversations.

He says: "Sound in a space affects us profoundly. It changes our heart rate, breathing, hormone secretion, brain waves, it affects our emotions and our cognition.

There is also a lot of research to demonstrate that noise in offices changes people's behaviour – it makes them less helpful, more frustrated, absenteeism goes up and so does the rate of sickness.

But he warns that complete silence is as difficult to concentrate in as a noisy work environment. Plus, the levels of noise that are acceptable will vary between individuals and may depend on the type of work they are doing. 

Ideas to reduce background noise

So what is the answer?

1. Play soothing sounds

If you're unable to reduce the noise of co-workers, one solution is to mask out the noise with other sounds. This includes playing ambient noises like birdsong, rainfall and nature sounds at a low level. This helps to mask people’s conversations, preventing people from unintentionally tuning in to what a colleague is saying and distracting them from their own work.

2. Look at your office setup

Consider the amount of space you have between desks. If staff sit too closely to each other, they won’t be able to help but hear what each other are saying, even when they are not involved in the conversation.

If you can't alter your office layout, there are still ways to reduce the sound from travelling. Try to reduce the number of hard surfaces such as concrete, tiles, metal and glass as they tend to bounce the noise around, while carpets and linoleum can help to reduce noises. Fabric-covered partitions can also help, or perhaps consider sound-absorbing panels that can be attached to walls or hung from the ceiling if you don't want to partition your office.

3. Create quiet havens

Make sure you have some quiet spaces or rooms where staff can go to concentrate if they are working on a complex task or difficult project. If employees are able to choose to escape the sounds of an open plan office, this will help prevent them from becoming frustrated by background noise.

If you don't have any spare space to create a quiet area, many of our business centres offer meeting rooms that can be hired by the hour, half day or day, with preferential rates for residents.

4. Do a sound survey

If you’re not sure whether noise is an issue at your company, ask your staff. By getting them to complete a survey about sound levels, you can find out if there are any areas in your workspace where this is a particular problem or whether there are members of staff who are badly affected by background noise.

If you identify individuals who find the noise particularly distracting, you can look at solutions to help them specifically or consider moving them to a quieter part of the office. While many staff resort to earphones to block out the noise, this can mean that you end up with people working in complete isolation, cutting themselves off from the social aspects of office life. Depending on the music they listen to, it can also be counterproductive to their productivity. 

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