Sounding Off

Michael Page, joint managing director of workplace consultant, Saracen Interiors, looks at the issues surrounding noise in the modern office and the solutions that are commonly presented as a means of creating, and keeping, the peace.

How to counter the effects of noise in an open-plan office will always feature highly on the average client check list as noise and lack of privacy continue to prove to be such major distractions. An estimated seven out of ten, working in open-plan spaces, claim to be affected by noise, from doors slamming and music on the radio to loud phone voices and chattering colleagues.

You don’t need statistics to confirm the fact that too much noise can have a detrimental effect in a working environment, not to mention a negative impact on staff morale. Take it as a given. Many workers have been driven from their desks by excessive noise, choosing to work from home, if it’s an option, or to seek solace in an empty boardroom.

And it’s not just a concentration issue. There’s also the confidentiality aspect to be considered… For example, nobody wants sensitive HR information discussed within earshot of whichever department and colleagues happen to be positioned the closest. There are some issues that are very clearly personal and best kept that way.

There’s a balance to be achieved as businesses strive to reap the benefits of open-plan, and the unity it affords, without falling victim to the negatives that can be imposed, from loss of privacy to low productivity. Part of the job for our team, when planning a fit out or refurbishment, is to make sure that the balance is realised by presenting a series of credible options.

There are many solutions that we flag up in the very early stages of the design and space planning process. All are dependent on space, budget and the specific needs of the individual client and include everything from intelligent space planning to the choice of floor and ceiling tiles, along with more expensive, high-tech solutions.

Thoughtful planning, including break up areas to disperse the noise and the considered positioning of certain departments, is always in the mix.

With some clients, we also advocate the ‘phone booth solution’ – small, acoustically-isolated spaces that can be used for private access to teleconferences, important phone calls or for increased concentration when there are deadlines to be met.

Also, the use of ‘slab to slab’ walls, rather than partitioned walls, that stop at the point of suspended ceilings or floors, can effectively cut off sound and restore a far quieter environment.

Then there are sound-absorptive, desk level products, ceiling tiles, flooring and fabric boards that help to muffle sound, along with sound-masking technology – the most expensive option, providing a coating of inoffensive ‘white noise’ such as birdsong or gently flowing water.

As well as creating a pleasing background noise, masking covers low-level noise and has been proven to improve performance and, of course, to boost that all-important sense of wellbeing that an open plan office, with jarring sound effects, can strip us of.

It’s important to remember that the noise factor can work both ways. Some quiet spaces can be a little too quiet, exposing colleagues who are struggling to maintain some privacy around themselves when making phone calls or talking to colleagues. Masking sounds, as mentioned above, is useful in these situations, as such sounds are low volume and easy to work in.

Often, it’s all about budget but, for us, the crux of it is that we’d be falling short if we didn’t advise clients on what can be achieved by spending a bit more in certain areas. For instance, a small upgrade on floor or ceiling tiles can make a significant difference and, in doing so, can pave the way for a happier and more focused team.

The workers’ wellbeing is now a key focus for any office fit out or refurbishment. It tops the list when it comes to productivity and it sits at the very heart of the recruitment and retention of staff. And so getting the acoustics right has to be a priority for the facilities manager, as well as the office refurbishment consultant, as, when it comes to wellbeing, sound is, arguably, the crucial, contributing factor.

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