Workspace environments are perceived as being the place where the work gets done. An optimal working environment considers numerous physical, mental, and also social aspects of work. In this article, I would like to shed light on the role played by acoustics in this context, specifically for International Noise Awareness Day. This annual event, falling on the 27th April, raises awareness about the harmful effects of noise on health and wellbeing and quality of work.
Acoustics in general can be roughly divided into sound and noise. While pleasant ‘sounds’ are described as such, disturbing sounds are classified as ‘noise’. Acoustic stimuli can have a wide variety of effects on people. The basis for our reactions to noise are primal stimulus reactions and would have been essential for survival, but nowadays this sensitivity is counterproductive. Especially in modern open work environments, acoustic sensory overload can be a hindrance to productivity, satisfaction, and wellbeing. Employers and employees are increasingly recognizing the value of good acoustics in their company premises and expect this.
What qualifies as a distractor – good and bad noises?
Acoustics are not just a ‘nice to have’ add-on, but essential for good architectural design. This is why: noise literally affects our physical and psychological state – even when we are unaware of it happening. Noise is not just noise. Noise can either help or distract, can positively and negatively influence our wellbeing. Contrary to many expectations, silence is not the best environment, e.g. for focus work.
Studies have shown that certain wavelengths (e.g. continuous white noise) have a positive effect on focus, well-being and can even promote better processing of acoustic stimuli. Hearing pure sounds, like the voice of your co-worker, becomes more accurate, which helps the brain distinguish between relevant and less relevant information. Harmonic, low-level, continuous noises can even facilitate a better sleep experience but also contribute to better focus at work. Researchers discovered the relationship between low-frequency noises and fatigue in the working environment. It is different with noises that attract attention such as the most popular acoustic distractors in open-plan offices: clearly understandable conversations from colleagues, telephone rings, and other loud, inconsistent, and unnatural sources of noise. Those acoustic distractions not only lead to a less satisfied perception of the office environment, but also directly influence work performance and health.
“Fight or flee” – biological responses of our body
But where do these negative reactions of the body come from? Scientist Bart Kosko, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California and author of "Noise", finds an explanation of this phenomenon in human evolutionary history: "Loud noise correlated with high-stress events that could damage tissue: thunder, animal roars, screams, or war cries” . To survive, a chemical stimulus response to loud noises manifested itself in the human body, releasing adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones when threatened. These messenger substances made it possible to suddenly increase the heartbeat, blood pressure, respiratory rate, muscle contraction and respiratory rate and to shut down the vegetative functions, such as the metabolism. This was the only way to flee quickly or go on the attack - "fight or flee".
Health impacts of today’s noise-pollution
Originally a very useful achievement of human biology, the fight or flee reaction is problematic today. Most people live in noisy cities and work in noisy environments. Although we are now used to our noisy environment, and volume no longer necessarily means danger, our body releases similar stress hormones. Prolonged stress often leads to changes in our hormonal and cerebral systems. Also, a permanently suppressed immune system makes us more susceptible to illness, poor sleep, and cognitive impairment. In short, “if stress continues and the body is unable to cope, there is likely to be breakdown of bodily resources”. People get sick, exhausted, and feel less content and motivated.
Open offices – risks and potentials
A meta-analysis revealed a strong connection between working in open offices and reduced worker’s psychological privacy and job satisfaction. Some evidence exists that cognitive workload increases in open offices. The hearing experience is very individual and is influenced by multi-dimensional factors. On the one hand, there are the psychological factors such as the attitude towards sound and the stress resilience.
On the other hand, there is the significant sound components (level, reverberance, and clarity). Each of those components determine the impact the acoustic environment has on the individual.
Surveys showed that employees in open offices complained about noise 10x more often than people working in cellular offices and were more often unsatisfied with the amount of accomplished work due to noise distractions. 62% of businesses are already trying to minimise distractions to allow a more productive performance.
Lack of acoustic environments for focus work and it’s commercial consequences
Increasing days off due to sick leave causes rising governmental and commercial costs. Mental health issues cause nearly half of missed working days and cost UK employers around £45 billion annually. Office space has become an increasingly dense environment and big open spaces with the pursuit of facilitating collaborative work came at the cost of good, focused work scenarios.
63% of occupiers say they feel negatively impacted in their work productivity, their satisfaction and wellbeing due to a lack of silent space for focus work. The main sensory distractor in the workplace is noise at 69% followed by visual factors. Those who feel distracted by noise experience a decline in being focused, productive and creative. In open office spaces, distractions occur every 11 minutes and coming back to focus on the task takes up to 20-25 minutes. A survey has shown that this can cause an annual financial loss of productivity estimated up to US$18,000 per employee.
As a solution, current workspace designs increasingly integrate diverse landscapes. By this, occupants have the choice of which setting suits their specific task best. Those different environments allow employees to allocate the best place for high, medium, and low focus work.
A successful floor plan with different room types does not work on its own. Ensuring that hard surfaces absorb sound rather than reflect it is essential for good acoustics. By using suitable materials and products to cover elements such as walls, carpets and ceilings can interrupt the reverberation of soundwaves and create a natural sound environment. If noise should be kept in or outside certain areas, suitable sound insulating products can help control those acoustics.
A third way to get control of distractive noises is sound masking. Sound masking is a process in which loudspeakers are placed in a room to mask a harmonic sound of noise. This design application is recommended in the WELL Building Standard for both increasing privacy between spaces as well as creating restorative spaces for workers to relax and take breaks.
After two years of continuously needing to adapt to changing environments, employees have redefined what they expect from their workplace – and this is mostly not what the pre-pandemic office provided. 53% of the employees are considering transitioning to hybrid work this year, but still will prioritise wellbeing over work. At the same time companies want their staff to return to the office as they aim to improve company culture, innovation, learning, and productivity.
The current discourse in the workspace design industry is investigating key elements more closely than ever before. What needs to be considered to design an inviting, meaningful, and healthy workplace that employees want to return to? Well, at least, acoustic quality is one of them!
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