Designing around The Noise Problem
Open plan offices have been a reality for decades, reducing ‘cubicle fever’ and breaking down walls between the ranks in an office environment to promote team working. But a new study from Oxford Economics claims that open plan offices can actually hurt employee productivity.
Office workers placed a premium on the ability to focus without interruption, even regarding it as more important that perks like free food or on-site daycare in the study.
You know the problem if you’ve ever had the misfortune to phone a call centre. The noise floor can be so high from so many people talking constantly that it can be picked up on your call, leaving you feeling like you’re talking to someone at Waterloo station.
The problem is the same if you work in environments with a high conversational noise floor – imagine trying to come up with a winning advertising campaign in the concourse at Waterloo station, or design a new, more efficient fan belt. Noise can be not only irritating but actively distracting, and with no barriers in an open plan environment, the sound levels can make focusing on the job increasingly difficult.
The study surveyed 1,200 global employees and executives. Millennials were more likely than other age groups to say that noise distracts them from their work. They also reported being more annoyed by ambient noise in their offices than other workers did.
But this is not just a millennial ‘snowflake’ problem. More than half of employees say ambient noise reduces their satisfaction at work, the report claimed, with many feeling compelled to solve the problem on their own, blocking out distraction through visits to the breakroom, taking walks outside, or listening to white noise and music on headsets or headphones, and so negating the very benefits of collaborative space that open plan offices were supposed to deliver.
With good office design though, you can go a long way towards solving the problem, resulting in happier, more productive staff.
Alan Hedge, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, advises that when designing an office, companies should consider minimizing hard surfaces, avoiding open ceilings in favour of sound-absorbent materials, using carpet, and lowering barriers between desks so co-workers can see each other and speak more quietly.
Companies can help their staff manage the challenges of noise and open space by creating designated individual pods and smaller meeting rooms to allow for privacy and quiet during the work day, and providing employees with the flexibility to work remotely. Think about it in advance, and make sure your office designer knows how to deal with the challenges of a rising noise floor – and that your organisational infrastructure offers ways to deal with it too.