Many staff can have enormous difficulties with the sounds that form the backdrop to their working day, especially if they work in open plan areas. The problem with these kind of working environments is particularly critical right now, as more and more employees work in open plan offices and at workstations that are on average about 20 percent smaller than they were ten years or so ago.
Analysis by office furniture manufacturer Steelcase found recently that it takes a person fully twenty-three minutes to return to a task after being interrupted. Bear in mind that the average worker is interrupted or distracted every three minutes and you can see how disruptive to the day this issue really is.
Unproductive and unhappy
While open-plan offices are designed to encourage collaboration, research published by Oxford Economics found that more than half of employees say poor office acoustic design reduces productivity and makes people unhappy. 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.
A 2015 analysis of 100 research papers by the environmental psychologist Dr Nigel Oseland found that just one quarter of the effect of noise in the office could be attributed to its volume, however. 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 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.”
What is interesting about the research in this area is that the noises that cause the most stress, annoyance and distraction are those that are either irrelevant or over which people have no control. It’s not just about the level of noise, but its type.
When Woven Image took part in the research project Wellness Together, a survey of over 1000 UK office workers, shrieks of laughter or variable conversation volumes emerged as the most distracting type of noise, while low-level background noise was reported to be less of a distraction.
Scandinavian researchers Anders Kjellberg and Bertil Nordstrom also found that sudden noise was far more distracting than constant background noise, which explains why interruptions may be more of a problem in a calmer office than in a noisier call centre.
A sophisticated approach
What such studies confirm is that office design must take a sophisticated approach to the issue of acoustics. The problem of noise in offices has both a physical and psychological dimension, so solutions must reflect both the solid and easy-to-define characteristics of the building and its interior, but also the rather less easily definable issue of culture. That is not to say that it’s all in our heads, but that we must look at all of the facets of acoustic design if we are to come up with the best possible solution.
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Tony Sutton is Managing Director of Woven Image. Established in Australia in 1987, Woven Image is a leading international business-to-business supplier of high performance, quality textiles and acoustic interior solutions. Almost all Woven Image products have gained environmental accreditations from third-party organisations. www.wovenimage.com
Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 17 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.