How workplace acoustics impact productivity


(Source: Flo Dahm on Pexels)

Furniture manufacturer, Haworth, recently held a webinar on acoustics in the workplace. Hosted by Mathew Toniolo, a workplace advisor for Haworth, the webinar discussed how acoustics impact work performance and overall well-being. As specialists in designing sound absorption products, their insight was invaluable. My focus here is less on why workplace acoustics matter, but more so on how it impacts productivity. And how we can use these insights, which I share below, to make better informed, acoustic design solutions for the office. Before sharing my key takeaways, it’s briefly worth defining what acoustics is.

What is acoustics?

Britannica defines it as “the science concerned with the production, control, transmission, reception, and effects* of sound”. As we spend a considerable amount of our working week in the office, companies have embraced new technologies to equip their employees with the tools they need to do their job well. The nature of the office, as we know it, has also gone through a physical transformation. In a bid to foster better collaboration amongst employees, firms have adopted open-plan offices with privacy gradually ceasing to exist as a workplace construct.

Aesthetic appeal aside, the acoustics of the office space, that is the ‘effect‘ sound has on employees, be it positive or negative, is instrumental in making them feel more focussed or distracted. How? I hope my key takeaways below provide some interesting insights.

  • Three types of distractions affect productivity in the workplace:

a) auditory distractions – concerns unpredictable sounds such as co-workers chatting or loud coffee machines. A 2018 Udemy Workplace Distraction Report found that chatty co-workers (80%) and office noise (70%) were the main causes of workplace distraction.

b) visual distractions – refers to unpredictable sights in the workplace (e.g. flickering lights).

c) auditory interferences – refers to predictable sounds such as people directly talking and engaging in conversation with you.

  • The recommended background noise level in an office is 40 dB. Any higher and you’re asking for disgruntled employees. Noise frequency is measured in decibels (dB), and as unpredictable sounds (e.g. audible speech, printers, coffee machines, air conditioning) sit higher in the frequency chart than the recommended levels, they create significant noise pollution in the workplace. In fact, according to Haworth, 70% of workers feel more productive in a less noisy environment with 50% of employers citing workplace acoustics to be a major interference on productivity.
Haworth's noise frequency chart
(Source: Haworth)

  • Different materials have different sound absorption qualities. This is determined by the type of activity the area is created for. Due to their own unique characteristics, spaces used for conferences will need different types of protection for noise absorption, compared to private offices and small meeting rooms. The function of the space is, therefore, key to achieving the right levels

Concluding thoughts

To sum it up, it’s our responsibility to be conscious of how our actions affect the people around us. We’ve seen how different distractions (both auditory and visual) impact negatively on productivity, not to mention how higher than recommended noise frequency levels affect employees’ concentration levels. Although the adoption of trendy office spaces is great, sound – an invisible vibration of energy – must be considered as an integral part of the design process to meet the challenges of a workforce generation with an increasingly shorter attention span. This is where frank discussions on the types of absorption materials required need to be had. As conversations on well-being are so topical in this day and age, the role of acoustics must be acknowledged alongside other work-related stress factors that could lead to burnout.

* The emphasis is mine – I chose to focus specifically on the effects of sound

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