Noise is all around us. From the humming of a fridge to the roaring of a busy street, noise is around us wherever we are. As a result, it can be easy to overlook the importance of sound, since we are so accustomed to it. With the open office trend reigning at the moment, the question being asked is “How is noise affecting work?”.
Noise, or sound, is simply waves that travel through the air at different frequencies and then eventually into our ears. The space we are in can drastically affect how our ears receive the sound. If you’ve ever stood in a room with an echo, the room’s space and design are exactly why an echo occurs. Sound doesn’t immediately dissipate upon impact with surfaces but rather attempts to bounce off it. As sound bounces, we can end up hearing the same sound twice, which is how echoes occur and why offices with lots of flat and hard surfaces can get very loud.
The volume of sound is measured in decibels (db). The volume of sound is surprisingly important when it comes to how it affects us. A quiet conversation, which is around 50 decibels is too quiet and we pick up on the lack of sound and be distracted by it if we are trying to work.
However, at 85db or higher, such as the ambience of a busy road, is too much noise and will cause a distraction for that reason. However, noise is necessary for our brains to function at their best. While a quiet breeze and occasional page turn on your holiday in Lisbon is relaxing and comforting, this is not the same for when we’re working. We need sound stimulation at work to keep us alert and productive, very much the opposite of our aim on a quiet holiday. The sweet spot for noise levels is around 70db, which allows for enough noise to keep the brain active, alert and creative, without distracting it. Getting a decibel meter, or simply a microphone is a great way to figure out how loud your office is.
Let’s consider the specific type of noise that your office struggles with and how to counter it. If you’re in an open office space, perhaps conversations are the main source of volume. The Lombard effect (Lombard, 1909) describes that the volume of conversation will steadily get louder as people gradually speak louder in order to speak over the noise, thereby increasing it more. If the noise is primarily external, perhaps a busy road, measures to block off external sound will need to be made. Controlling and limiting noise in space is important, especially if it is to your business’ benefit. By controlling sound within your office space, you can see productivity, creativity, and wellbeing improve in your whole team.
Firstly, by setting limits on the source of the sound, you immediately reduce noise the moment it occurs. In acoustic design, speakers are placed pointing away from flat surfaces, to avoid noise bouncing around and creating echoes and increased volume. While it’s unlikely that your office has studio speakers in it, we can take some of the ideas from it. Acoustic panels can be a great solution since they will absorb and dissipate some of the sounds before it reaches our ears. Perhaps you could position employees so that they are not facing each other and thereby no one will be in direct line of someone else’s voice.
If external noise such as cars or a busy street is the main source of noise, first check the state of your current building. If your building has any holes or cracks, sound will easily seep through. Start by ensuring your building is in good condition. If external noise remains an issue, consider investing in acoustic barriers to place between you and the source. These can be items such as acoustics fencing if you’ve got the space to place them, or more sound insulated windows, to block off the noise from entering your building.
An unusual way to counteract unwanted noise is actually to make more noise. It seems counterintuitive, but making noise of your own helps to mask the unwanted sound. Music is one way to do this since it will be a closer source of noise than external noises. Some offices that are nearby to construction sites have even gone as far to play construction site audio through their office system, which counteracts the real noise and makes our ears perceive the real noise as quieter!
Controlling the sound and noise level within your office space is integral to ensuring that your team has the best opportunity to succeed. Sound is often overlooked in design, but when it is thought about carefully, it can have a surprisingly large effect on reducing noise pollution in your space leading to happier and more productive teams.