A new generation of workplaces is helping to resolve the problem of office acoustics.
If there is one subject that crops up more than any other in any contemporary debate about office design, it is acoustics. There are now lots of reasons why staff have difficulties coming to terms with the sounds that form the backdrop to their working day, especially if they work in open plan offices. The problem with these kind of working environments is particularly acute because most UK employees now work in open plan offices and at workstations that are on average about a quarter smaller than they were ten years ago.
The underlying love affair with open plan offices is unlikely to be broken off any time soon. Not only is open plan generally more conducive to communication and less bound by ideas of that great contemporary no-no that we call ‘status’, it takes up around half the space of cellular offices. In addition, the costs of fitting out a cellular office are around 25 per cent higher than an equivalent open plan space. So little wonder that open plan offices will remain the standard form of most British workplaces.
However, the biggest problem with open plan offices appears to be the lack of privacy they provide. A recent survey by office equipment manufacturer Brother found that employees lose up to two hours a day because of distractions caused by colleagues, phones, email and the general white noise of office life. By contrast, people working in total isolation, for example at home, were as much as 56 percent more productive. A more scientific study of 13,000 employees carried out in the US by John Olson of BOSTI Associates found that the single most important factor in determining productivity was the ability to do distraction-free solo work.
Other reports build on this idea. A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychology highlighted the role that ‘irrelevant noise’ plays not only in disrupting work, but also in increasing stress levels and decreasing job satisfaction, all part of the office wellbeing discussion.
So, although we may be aware of the harmful effects of noise and as much as many people claim they would like to work in enclosed offices, the cost of space and the contemporary focus on teamworking dictate that the open plan is here to stay as the norm for most of them. Fortunately it is possible to reach some sort of balance between the often conflicting need for us to work in privacy but also communicate as part of teams.
Problems and solution arise first at an architectural level. Sound is prone to bounce off ceilings and follow sight lines so the way a building is designed can have a significant impact on noise levels in its interior. The type and shape of a building is often beyond the control of the organisations that inhabit them so, regardless of its architecture, there are several basic elements to address to deal with problems of noise in a building, including ceiling systems, sound masking systems, systems furniture, flooring and interior design. Then again, some organisations are actively creating offices that have more in common with cafes and clubs than traditional offices.
This is one of the impulses behind the idea of giving people more choice about the places they work in the office. By creating spaces for different types of work and providing different levels of acoustic and visual privacy organisations are not only able to enjoy the benefits of open plan offices but are also able to mitigate their disadvantages. It also means that individuals can choose the right space for themselves depending on their work and to meet their own physical and psychological needs.