(Written by Cathy Hayward)
The chap the other side of the room shouting at his bank down the phone. The faulty fan. The two girls from accounts gossiping in the corner. The intern’s headphones leaking rap. Your colleague tapping their fingers on their desk. Repetitively. The auditor crunching through a packet of Doritos. Right next to you.
Noise at work is a major issue. According to Leesman, the world’s largest measurement of workplace effectiveness, just 30 per cent of us are happy with the noise levels in our workplace. Noise at work contributes to stress, absenteeism, staff turnover and low productivity.
The major concerns when it comes to sound are lack of control, lack of privacy and disruption from other people. That was the message from a seminar on psychoacoustics, the scientific study of the psychological and physiological responses associated with sound, hosted by Herman Miller recently.
Consistent sounds, such as a fan, are less irritating that inconsistent sounds, like a colleague’s heel tapping, acoustic expert Paige Hodsman from Saint-Gobain Ecophon told the packed audience at Herman Miller’s impressive London HQ. Nigel Oseland, environmental psychologist and workplace strategist, agreed. “We’re more relaxed about an ambulance at 5am than the sound of drilling the road interrupting our sleep. We have different attitudes to different sounds.” And it doesn’t necessarily matter how loud it is. A dripping tap is low level of sound but if you’re trying to sleep it can be highly annoying.
So how can we manage sound better at work? Good acoustic design can enhance communication between teams, reduce disturbance from unwanted speech, improve speech privacy for private phone calls and supports employees on complex, concentrated tasks, Hodsman said.
There is a four-step approach to managing sound at work, she added: displace, avoid, reduce, and educate.
However, Oseland made some interesting points about how different people deal with sound. “Introverts doing complex work in noisy environments will suffer; extroverts doing simple work in same place will thrive,” he said. Extroverts are less affected than introverts by noise at work in terms of performance, productivity, stress and wellbeing. Meanwhile research reveals that older people are less concerned about noise than youngsters. Maybe because they’re harder of hearing?
Perhaps we need more education about sound. Explain to people the impact of unwanted sound and educate them to use break-out areas, or small rooms for confidential discussions (of the banking or gossiping variety). Give people the language, and confidence, to ask someone to stop munching or tapping, and get them to take their headphones off and engage with the real world. And best of all, provide a variety of different spaces to work so that if the noise is too much in one area, they can move elsewhere.