Noise at work: Just a distraction or bad for business?

If you’ve ever struggled to gather your thoughts in a vociferous open-plan office, you won’t be surprised to learn that noise and lack of sound privacy top many a list of workplace woes.

Research by Kim and de Dear at the University of Sydney revealed that 30 per cent of workers in cubicles and around 25 per cent in partition-less offices were unhappy with noise levels at work.

If, on the other hand, you work from home and pine for the camaraderie of a densely populated workspace, take comfort: another survey showed that we actually become less friendly as the number of people we office-share with increases.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest lower satisfaction and productivity, increased stress and poorer health among workers in open-plan offices compared with those who have more walls to look at. And while open-plan offices present other problems too, background noise seems to be responsible for most complaints.

But how scientific are these grumbles? Surely open-plan offices can’t be so bad: over eight million of us in the UK work in one. And, of course, they promote collaboration – don’t they?

Collaborative confusion

Well, perhaps not. As Lindsey Kaufman from notes, Kim and de Dear’s 2013 survey found that, while lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for nearly half of those in open-plan offices, their ability to interact with colleagues was considered problematic by fewer than 10 per cent of workers.

Even if we accept that collaborative working environments could be causing more problems than they fix, the question remains: When does an employee grumble become bad for business?

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Noise and productivity

Research repeatedly links office noise to reduced cognitive performance. One study cited by Kim and de Dear showed that the loss of productivity due to noise distraction was doubled in open-plan offices.

Jeremy Luscombe, marketing manager at Resonics, says: “The most distractive noise to the human ear is conversational noise. Conversations force us to concentrate on the content and meaning of what is being said, as opposed to noise without meaning – such as a fan whirring or a printer humming. This leads to a reduction in brain activity and can disrupt attention and focus.”

In fact, one study found that workers lost as much as 86 minutes a day due to noise distractions.

The science of memory and distraction

Working memory can be thought of as ‘the search engine of the mind’. We use it to hold and manipulate a limited amount of information in our heads for a short amount of time.

But working memory has a limited capacity, and the information is unstable. Distractions can cause us to lose the information, and pperformance can decline.

When is noise distracting?

Clearly, noise can be distracting far below the decibels at which it’s dangerous. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations exist to protect workers from excessive noise that could permanently damage their hearing. In other words, your colleagues’ appraisals of last night’s tv is unlikely to breach its provisions.

Can sounds be positive?

There’s dissatisfaction at the other end of the spectrum, too: those deathly quiet offices, where it’s impossible to have a confidential conversation. While some of us find silence helpful, others prefer some background ‘hum’. Is there, then, a desirable level of workplace noise?

Luscombe says: “The key is to strike the right balance. Too much noise, and employee productivity and wellbeing will drop. Conversely, a ‘dead’ space will make it difficult for sound to travel and can harm collaboration.”

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Can sounds be positive?

There’s dissatisfaction at the other end of the spectrum, too: those deathly quiet offices, where it’s impossible to have a confidential conversation. While some of us find silence helpful, others prefer some background ‘hum’. Is there, then, a desirable level of workplace noise?

Luscombe says: “The key is to strike the right balance. Too much noise, and employee productivity and wellbeing will drop. Conversely, a ‘dead’ space will make it difficult for sound to travel and can harm collaboration.”

The answer may also depend on the type of work in question. Psychologist Nick Perham found that listening to music to mask unwanted office noise also impairs our mental acuity. Research from the University of Chicago, meanwhile, shows that ambient noise at a moderate level can boost creative thinking.

Pink noise

Ambient noise is used to workers’ advantage in some offices – where ‘pink noise’ improves concentration and confidentiality.

Similar to ‘white noise’ but deeper in tone, pink noise provides a constant sensory input for our brains, which are easily distracted by change. Such alertness is useful from an evolutionary perspective, but when your biggest threat is a missed deadline, it’s better to convince the brain to ‘tune out’ from potential distractions.

Office design: the good, the bad and the noisy

There’s a reason why your favourite warehouse-style co-working space can make for a noisy workplace: hard surfaces aren’t good at absorbing sound, as Luscombe explains:

“Hard surfaces propagate noise, rather than absorb it. When soundwaves strike a non-absorbent surface such as concrete, plasterboard or glass, it is reflected back into the room.”

Soft furnishings can help – although not everyone will be able to go to the lengths achieved by the National Trust’s headquarters, where the carpets are made from the wool of the Trust’s own sheep.

“You don’t need to replace all the stylish, sleek surfaces in your office to achieve effective sound absorption,” says Luscombe. “Strategically placed acoustic panels, which are capable of absorbing over 90 per cent of sound they come into contact with, will positively affect the acoustic environment in any space, while adding an aesthetic touch.”

National Trust headquarters, Swindon

One of the greenest offices in the UK, the open-plan Heelis Centre marries great acoustic control with eco-friendly design, despite significant acoustic challenges like the exposed concrete slabs of the natural ventilation system.

Strokes of genius include suspended acoustic baffles (faced with lambswool) in the central café and breakout area, which can be lowered to double as screened enclosures.

A final soundbite

If, as Lindsey Kaufman suggests, open-plan offices are a false economy as the benefits of collaboration don’t outweigh the loss in performance, significant changes are needed.

Kaufman suggests that “if employers want to make the open-office model work, they […] should implement rules on when interaction should be limited”.

“And please,” she adds, “let’s eliminate the music that blankets our workspaces. Metallica at 3pm isn’t always compatible with meeting a 4pm deadline.”

I’m listening, and I can’t hear any objections to that. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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