Cutting through the noise in open-plan offices

The working world has a love-hate relationship with open-plan offices – most of which centres around noise – however, the open-plan office concept is highly successful for several reasons. But how does it affect our wellbeing?

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Noise pollution is the primary cause of a reduction in productivity and can contribute to stress and illness, which can result in absenteeism and continuous turnover of staff. The typical noise level in an open-plan office is 65 dB, and shockingly that’s only 30 dB less than a lawnmower. Furthermore, background noise, even at low levels, has been found to increase stress levels and undermine short-term memory, reading comprehension and willingness to engage with others. On top of this, workers have been seen to be 60% less productive in a noisy office – which is a worrying statistic to any business owner.

In recent years, studies have revealed that good exposure to natural light and outdoor views of nature reduces stress and boosts employee mental wellbeing and productivity; therefore, drapes and blinds have been removed from office spaces to allow ample inflow of natural light which will typically find staff healthier and working at high energy levels. And, while not every office in a building can be located close to a window, smart window designs and large open spaces promote more penetration of sunlight into the office spaces.

However, along with this, office design has seen the removal of carpets for hard, easy-to-clean flooring. Still, as a result, there has been an increase in issues with noise. Whether it is a noisy restaurant, inherited office space, new extension, classroom or university canteen, the issue of reverberation and broken concentration is always only a conversation away.

Removing soft flooring and fabrics to keep lines clean, the floor free and windows empty to let in as much light as possible may look fabulous when the finished building is empty but when you add people to these hard-walled areas and meeting rooms, this can easily lead to a cacophony of reverberant sound; which is, ultimately, stressful to work in.

Many office buildings we reside in aren’t new; they aren’t built with acoustic glass or plasterboard, or cleverly designed to address the acoustics, and quite simply, the sound has nowhere to go. So apart from trickling through the smallest glass partition gap, under the door or through the air conditioning flue, perhaps – where it can spread to distract people working in other areas of the building – it will largely continue to bounce around inside a room making it incredibly difficult to listen, be heard and concentrate in, which will affect physical, mental and social wellbeing. Considering 70 million working days were lost to mental illness, costing £70 to £100bn to the UK economy last year, the impact this has on productivity and employees’ work ethic cannot be ignored.

So, how do you make a room acoustically sound? Firstly, identify the various workstyles that are to be carried out and how each workstyle or department interact with each other. Position them to maximise communication, interaction and acoustic comfort – i.e. consider those that concentrate on detail and accuracy. Identify the recommended RT60 for the specific workstyles in each area and ensure that the attenuation properties of walls partitions are adequate.

Therefore, considering acoustics at the planning stage is essential when embarking on an office refurbishment and the great news is, acoustic improvement products are no longer boring and hidden; they’re stylish, colourful and are used in a variety of applications – from meeting pods to partitions and decorative forms such as wall panels and ceiling enhancements.

Furthermore, you don’t necessarily need Class A solutions in offices and meeting rooms. Most of the energy in the human voice is centred between 300 Hz and 1500 Hz. It, therefore, makes complete sense that when it’s time to select the right acoustic panel for the task to select one that works within this range.

Adding acoustic treatments can offer immediate relief from reverberant sound where both walls and ceilings can be fully utilised to grab those soundwaves and turn the rooms back into useable areas quietly and confidently.

Ceiling baffles and rafts are a perfect solution, especially in this glass-walled era, catching the soundwaves that hit them and trapping them inside the products.

Alternatively, there are numerous highly absorbent 3D panels on the market which will add not only vital absorption but also a real design element to the project as well.

A recent project for a well-known financial giant recently used 3D wall panels to absorb vital reverberation in the meeting rooms whilst also adding a great feature to an otherwise simple design. Meanwhile, in the main break-out area, ceiling baffles were deployed to catch the sound bouncing around this populated area, keeping the noise levels low and contained.

An environment which supports a healthy mental state can significantly improve students’ or employees’ work ethics, motivating them and promoting positive relationships as well as increasing productivity all round.

The bottom line is to think carefully when trying to improve your workers’ health. Noise absorption is just as important as light to a person’s wellbeing, and unless your building is as quiet as it is light, the roar of the people trying to use the beautiful spaces created will inevitably create more problems than it solves.

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