Open-plan offices and open-door policy are thought to support a culture that encourages collaboration, transparency, and productivity by enabling easy and quick communication between employees. It allows quick sharing of task-relevant information, promotes more informal conversations, decreases the need for formal meetings, and, finally, creates more opportunities for socialising, all resulting in a higher job satisfaction and increased motivation (1). For productivity, however, the result is frequently opposite.
The biggest issue with open spaces and productivity is the level of noise that is coming from peoples’ conversations, from those talking on phones, from the use of loud printers and photocopiers and even things like keyboards and mouses. The European OFFICAIR study collected data from 167 office buildings and reported that around a third of workers are dissatisfied with sound conditions in their workplace. Distractions due to poor acoustic conditions may make workers lose up to 86% of productivity each day (2).
Noise is defined as any unwanted sound (3). The sound levels are measured in decibels (dB) using special appliances called sound meters. Nowadays phone apps such as Decibel X can help with measuring noise levels in your workplace.
Sound is an important environmental factor and has an impact on physical health and emotional wellbeing. Noise levels above 80 dB are already considered harmful to the human body and regular exposure results in a negative effect on blood pressure and cardiovascular health (4, 5, 6). This level of noise accounts for e.g. the sounds of heavy traffic, noisy restaurant or working window air conditioner. As a comparison, the noise from sports crowds or a rock concert measure at 120-130 dB.
The open-plan offices normally measure at approximately 60-70 dB. The issue is that 60 dB is thought to be already too loud for proper focus on complex work tasks, and the level of 70 dB is thought to suffice mainly for transactional work (7). One of the sources of noise that disrupts the work tasks most is other people’s speech (8). Research shows that hearing others speak may make it difficult to memorise or perform arithmetic tasks (8). Moreover, such noise can negatively influence emotional wellness, building up a sense of annoyance, and can even make people more irritable and aggressive, leading to less thoughtful and cooperative behaviour (9).
On the other hand, have you ever noticed how well you can concentrate in a coffee shop compared to an office, even though the coffee shops are normally far from quiet? In fact, coffee shops measure at around 70 dB as well! Though, the biggest distinction is that compared to an office, in a coffee shop you are less connected to the unacquainted people and their conversations. Instead of being disruptive, this kind of noise can stimulate abstract thinking and boost creativity (10). So, it doesn’t need to be totally quiet as in the library. Research shows that for creative tasks it is best to have a balance where the space isn’t too loud or too quiet (10). However, overall sound levels not higher than 55dB are recommended for intellectual tasks (7).
Now we know that the acoustic environment is definitely important to consider when doing workplace health assessments and setup to ensure optimal productivity. But what can you do as an employer or employee about it?
- Set up the workplace to separate spaces, for group work and for quite deep work time. In these conditions, employees will be able to perform best in the teamwork and solo work tasks requiring high concentration.
- DSE assessment guides suggest to move noise sources such as loud printers away from the employees as they might disturb them.
- Invest in sound-absorbing materials. It is easier to plan and incorporate it in design features such as sound-absorbing ceiling tiles, walls and panels when the office is about to be built or renovated, however there are still things that you might be able to change further along the line. These include adding partitions between desks, using carpets, and making sure the equipment such as printers, heating, air conditioners, and ventilation are not noisy.
- Plants, apart from positively impacting health and emotional wellbeing, also absorb the sound. So having plenty of plants around the workplace is always a good idea!
- If it is hard to bring the chatters and workplace noises down, masking them with a sound masking system could be an option. This will create better ambiance by making conversations less distinctive, and improve speech privacy.
- Noise-cancelling headphones – Large over the ear headphones are best at protecting you from unwanted noise.
- Use music to create your own background. Sound influences emotions and can help energise or calm you down and help with focus. It helps to create your own virtual space. Wavepaths is an example of an online app that can help with that.
- You may want to try earplugs that also help with noise reduction.
- If you happen to sit near a loud printer that constantly disrupts your work, it might be not obvious to others. Tell your manager and discuss the ideas on how to work around it.