Putting sound to work at work

Have you experienced the joy of the open plan workplace? You may even be in one right now – revelling in the 14 scrambled conversations going on around you, thrilling to overhear some exciting commentary about weekend plans.

Or – well, maybe not. The noise that results from open plan workspaces is the bane of many an office worker.

Noise in the workplace bothers us more than even the temperature of the air con – and that’s saying something. Excess noise affects productivity, happiness, and even our physical health. According to Julian Treasure from consultancy The Sound Agency, it’s literally an assault on our neurons, and for an aging workforce – that’s very bad news. ‘If you’re trying to listen to one person in an office and the background noise is very loud, it becomes harder and harder… the brain is having a struggle.’

The good news is, getting the acoustics right at work isn’t hard. It’s simply a matter of understanding the needs of each zone, and tailoring the soundscape to suit. Here’s what most offices sorely lack – but desperately need.

1. Acoustics for thinking
First of all, functional offices require a place where workers can focus. Sounds obvious, but with 70% of offices now open plan, that’s unlikely to be at a desk. As Treasure explains, the average person has ‘bandwidth’ for 1.6 conversations – including your own inner voice. So if someone’s talking near you, you’ve only got a fraction of focus left for your own thoughts. ‘Even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop it,’ Treasure explains. After all, ‘You have no earlids.’

The solution is pretty obvious, really: find a place that’s nice and quiet for when you need to concentrate. Headphones are a popular solution if you can’t move your seat. If you need to truly absorb information, music will hinder, not help you – so go with white noise or total noise cancelling. Even better, see if you can arrange for specific areas to be officially designated as quiet spaces, even if for just a few hours a day.

2. Acoustics for meeting
Most office-based work involves meetings of some sort (but if yours doesn’t, lucky you!). Meeting rooms, however, are usually terrible places to have a conversation. ‘Many are designed with glass walls, hard ceilings, whiteboards and big-screen televisions on the walls,’ explains acoustics expert Steve Johnson. In other words, materials which reflect noise are literally surrounding your conference table – making it hard to hear the person across from you, let alone a pixelated face at the other end of a video chat. Rest assured, there is a solution. If you can arrange it, take a look at sound absorbing tiles and panels – a few carefully placed pieces can make an audible difference.

3. Acoustics for collaborating
Finally, you’ll probably need somewhere in the office where you can workshop ideas with colleagues or make a casual phone call. In this instance, you’ll want privacy, but not the kind of silence which will force everyone to eavesdrop (even if they don’t mean to).

What you need, in this instance, is known as ‘masking noise.’ According to Treasure, most offices require about a 50 or 60 decibel background noise to get people comfortable enough to talk freely. Nature sounds, such as birdsong or even a computer generated soundscape, are the best options.

Get all these elements sorted, and you’re well on the way to a functioning workplace – acoustically speaking, at least. Now, where did you put that to-do list?

For more information on sound at work, contact your local clinic.

NHC blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.