Jobs and the Future of Work

Could reducing noise make offices more productive?

Offices are seen at the headquarters of Germany's industrial conglomerate ThyssenKrupp AG in Essen November 18, 2013. ThyssenKrupp, Germany's biggest steelmaker will release its annual results on Thursday. Photo taken on November 18. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender  (G

Offices are seen at the headquarters of Germany's industrial conglomerate ThyssenKrupp AG. Image: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender.

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A natural repercussion of the last decade’s sea change toward more open office space, high noise levels can cost companies in employee focus and productivity.

According to a 2015 World Green Building Council (WGBC) report, background noise can lead to as much as a 66 percent drop in productivity, while a UK study found that three in 10 employees regularly lose their concentration due to the chatter and hum of office life. That makes noise the biggest workplace distraction – more than other clear productivity drains, including social media.

Fortunately, smart acoustics, building commissioning and workplace design can cut the distracting noise, without sacrificing the office “buzz” that is also vital to collaboration.

Fine-tuning the office environment

No one wants noise or lack of privacy to interfere with getting work done, regardless of whether there’s too much or too little sound.

“The role of sound should be considered as early as possible in the earliest design stage,” saysBernice Boucher, Managing Director, Americas Workplace Strategy, JLL. “What is the optimal level of noise in your workplace? Organizations can use several important noise-balancing strategies to fine-tune the auditory environment.”

Before the blueprints are even submitted, many highly advanced noise-reducing tactics can be engineered into a building’s architecture and construction.From there, workplace layout can make all the difference in the sound experience. For example, separating quiet zones and collaboration zones provides activity-focused office neighborhoods. And, simply providing access to small, quiet workstations can spur productivity by an additional six percent, according to JLL workplace research.

Three ways to beat office noise

The mantra in noise reduction, according to the U.S. General Services Administration, is toabsorb, block, and mask the offending sounds—or silence.

Absorb sound with furnishings and materials

High-performing acoustic ceiling tiles and baffles are primary tools in the fight against bad workplace acoustics. Sound can also be absorbed by a range of intriguing materials, such asmobile storage cabinets made with pressed felt that absorbs sound across a wide range of frequencies. Sound-reducing paint is a fairly simple way to mitigate mid-range frequency sound, albeit not a complete noise-proofing solution.

Block sound with physical barriers

It sounds simple, but walls, panels and doors can do wonders for a noise problem. For example, simply keeping appliances and machinery in one central room enables you to close the door on an array of sounds. Thick glass partitions can be used to block sound without creating an enclosed environment.

“Glass-enclosed space helps employees retreat from noise, while still gaining inspiration from open sight lines that promote productivity,” comments Boucher. “Glass exposures can help create the perception that ‘this workplace is buzzing with ideas”—without the actual auditory buzz permeating the entire office.”

Mask sound with ambient noise

Too much silence can be as distracting as excessive noise. Adding soft, non-cognitive white noise is a fairly cost-effective way to create ideal workplace acoustics. Set to 50 or 60 decibels and distributed evenly across the office, a uniform background noise—like the sound of a gentle wind—can reduce anxiety and keep workers from feeling self-conscious about, say, making a phone call or sneezing.

Whatever methods companies adopt to control sound, doling out headphones is not the solution. While these may block out noise, they also block opportunities for employees to connect, collaborate, or to learn what’s new in the organization, warns a Harvard Business Review article about the potentially negative impact of headphones on workplace community.

That said, effective sound management is a question of opportunity: With so many effective noise-management tools, why stop at simply shutting out noise? Rather, orchestrate a sound, office sound strategy.

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