Unless you’ve had your head buried firmly in the sand since January, your work life and social life will have been flipped upside down due to COVID-19. It has disrupted every single business and caused everyone to rethink the ‘old normal’.
Many people have been forced to work from home. Some prefer it, but others miss the human contact and collaboration of an office environment. Whatever your personal opinion, over the next few months we’ll be slowly heading back to our desks and trying to return to the old way of working.
This sounds great, but most people have noticed how much more productive they can be in a quieter environment at home. It’s up to businesses to not only make their workspaces COVID-safe but also address the potential noise issues.
Why are some offices noisier than others?
Office noise levels vary for a number of reasons. Most offices encourage friendly conversation and lively collaboration as part of their culture, but when the noise gets out of control it can throw off people’s productivity. On the other hand, it could have more to do with the physical layout of an office. Big companies who have staff in the same department spaced out through an open-plan office will naturally have more noise.
“The geometry of most open-plan offices means that the ceiling will generally provide the most significant surface area,” says Roderick Altman of SAS International. “Sound tends to go up and then bounce down from the ceiling, which can create a very loud office environment. Controlling the reflection of sound will make a huge difference; essentially, the objective is to turn that huge surface area into a sound-absorbing plane”.
So, why should businesses be worried about a noisy office?
1. Bad for productivity
Office noise has been linked to a drop in productivity. Tech Radar reported that people’s concentration and work momentum could drop by 66%. It’s clear that when there are too many audible distractions, this can slow down the majority of people and ruin their focus.
2. Individual solutions are often counterproductive
To block out office background noise, lots of employees take matters into their own hands and listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks. There’s no conclusive evidence either way but it was recently suggested that listening to music could be detrimental to productivity too. The big problem with isolating yourself at work is that there’s less interaction between staff, which means less collaboration and fewer people sharing knowledge and skills.
3. Long-term exposure can cause hearing damage
It’s not just a short-term issue – prolonged exposure to even moderate noise could cause hearing damage. This could be something as innocuous as constant traffic passing an office window.
Tracey Pollard, Research Programme Manager at the UK charity Action on Hearing Loss, calls this “hidden hearing loss”. She said, “It is thought that noise doesn’t just damage the cells in the inner ear like hair cells or cochlear nerve cells, but can also affect how the brain processes sound.”
4. Staff find a noisy atmosphere unpleasant
More and more employees find that working in a quiet space helps with their own focus and attention, and is the best way for them to be productive. A noisy office can lead to a high turnover of staff as more people refuse to put up with background chatter and loud machines in their workspace.
High staff turnover coupled with a loud office environment can also lower the morale of the entire office and have a negative impact on a company’s culture and atmosphere.
Long gone are the days people want a ‘job for life’ and most employees want to be happy where they spend half of their day. Employees want a healthy work-life balance and take their mental and physical health seriously. It is important that businesses and employers acknowledge this, respecting this choice to stay fit and well while working.
If you think your office might be too loud, ask your employees what they think. An anonymous feedback form could be a good place to start. It’s important that although the founders set the company culture, the employees can impact it.
If it turns out your office is too loud, there are many solutions to help lower noise. You can work with specialists to have better acoustics in the office, remodelling where people sit so teams who work together can talk at a lower volume or by moving loud communal devices like the printers away from the desk areas.