Noises off: design workspaces for productivity

Noises off: design workspaces for productivity

One of the many challenges in the current business climate is enabling employees to do their best work, wherever their workspace is located. A shift towards hybrid working patterns has perhaps put more emphasis on the digital, but in fact the physical workspace doesn’t just require evolving to suit its reimagined objectives – such as being a hub for the culture, and a place that promotes collaboration – it must evolve to suit the changed needs of its occupants. And what many of us are finding is that we need more quiet.

As a 2022 blog by Microsoft stated (while introducing their Work Trend Index), “we’re not the same people that went home to work in early 2020. The collective experience of the past two years has left a lasting imprint, fundamentally changing how we define the role of work in our lives.”

Two years of homeworking hasn’t just led to a decrease in commuting, and an increase in family pets, it’s meant that we’ve all got used to a very different working environment. Many of those whose roles encompass a lot of solo work, especially involving deep thinking, have found that they have been able to be more productive at home (provided their family circumstances have enabled sufficient time and space to manage their workload).

More people, more noise, less work

So, now that we are able to get back into the workplace post-COVID, it’s not just reticence over the additional time and cost involved that people are experiencing – indeed many of us are perfectly aware of both the work-related and social benefits of working alongside colleagues, and are delighted to be operating outside the home again – it’s a concern that we might not get as much done. After working remotely for two years or so,we’re finding that the busy office environment isn’t conducive to the way we want to work, as much as our controllable home environment might be.

Noise is one of the biggest issues for many. Admittedly it’s an older study, but Tech Radar reported in 2013 that people’s concentration and work momentum could drop by 66% in a noisy open-plan office – and that was before any of us got used to working from home, so imagine how much more problematic office noise can be a decade later, after COVID lockdowns (indeed, a similar survey in 2019 suggested the figure had already risen to 69% pre-pandemic).

Increased sensitivity to distraction

With individual offices largely a thing of the past, and hot-desking commonplace, it’s no longer possible to close the door on loud telephone conversations or watercooler chats that you’re not opting to be part of. The open-plan norm isn’t proving easy to adjust back to, plus when you factor in increased numbers of virtual meetings, this can mean office noise levels are much higher than they used to be. “When you’ve spent two years alone, you become very sensitive to noise,” says Jeremy Myerson, emeritus professor at the Royal College of Art and co-author of Unworking: The reinvention of the modern office. “What we’re hearing from HR departments is that people are hypersensitive to their environments.”

Some organisations might appear to be more affected than others, depending on the demographic of the workforce. A 2016 study by Oxford Economics showed that Millennials were more likely than other age groups to say that noise distracts them from their work, while introverts have been proven to show greater noise sensitivity, as have neurodiverse individuals.

How to solve the problem of background noise

Designing the workspace to meet the needs of these returning workers is essential for effective hybrid working; if you want to encourage collaboration, creativity and culture, it’s important to set the right environment to allow these to blossom, alongside opportunities for focused working.

One effective solution is to provide a variety of different workspaces within the physical workplace. It’s not just about offering meeting rooms of various capacities so groups can right-size their space when booking, but also phone booths and huddle spaces, or pods designed for focused work. It’s even possible to arrange upholstered high-backed seating in sound-damping configurations or perhaps it might suit the business need to design in workplace libraries (no talking, lower lighting) to enable deep-focus thinking.

Sound masking solutions

A high-tech way of helping to reduce the distraction caused by noise levels in the office, as well as improving privacy in an open-plan space, is sound masking. Speakers are installed in the ceiling area, and play a background sound similar to airflow, which is tuned to cover speech frequencies. This diminishes intelligibility, helping people to more easily tune out office sounds and focus on what they’re doing. There is also a smart version of this, which uses sensors to modulate the output according to the noise levels in the space.  

To find out more about sound masking, and how we can advise on the right balance of different workspaces to meet an organisation’s specific needs, please get in touch.

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