16 - Jun - 2021

Office design and productivity

fc&a magazine article feat Oscar Acoustics

Sound check: The impact of acoustics on staff wellbeing in the workplace.

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Ben Hancock, Managing Director at Oscar Acoustics, explains the benefits of effective acoustics on office occupants, and how workplace interiors can be designed with sound in mind to improve health and productivity.

As many of us begin to return to the office, it's imperative that these spaces are kept as stress-free as possible, and that staff wellbeing is kept front of mind.  Acoustically balanced workplaces have been proven to reduce stress in the office and is vital for a happy and productive workforce.

One of the obvious advantages of having an open workspace is the ability to fit a large number of employees into a small area.  The ubiquitous open-plan office was initially heralded as the solution to improving collaboration and productivity, not to mention freeing generations of employees from working in cubicles.  But this concept isn’t as healthy or effective as we once thought.  One downside of open space environments is the lack of noise control, which can have a detrimental effect on employees' health and well-being.

SonaSpray K-13 grey throughout Radius Payment Solutions. SpaceInvader Design, Overbury and Andrew Smith - SG Photography.

The benefits of effective acoustics on office occupants

Office design and productivity go hand in hand.  Multiple studies and reports highlight that noise pollution is a huge contributor to poor productivity at work.  It’s difficult to perform tasks that need high concentration in such spaces, with noise levels marked as the single biggest complaint among office workers today.  Whilst noise-cancelling headphones can help, they aren’t the solution, undermining the ability of employees to collaborate, which was the central aim to begin with.

Re-configured spaces will affect acoustic quality

The benefits of effective acoustics on office occupants

SonaSpray K-13 grey throughout Radius Payment Solutions. SpaceInvader Design, Overbury and Andrew Smith - SG Photography.

As companies plan their return to the office, the quest for safer workspaces needs to be a top priority to ensure employees feel comfortable.  It’s important to remember that physical distancing arrangements can have a significant impact on acoustics.

Where voice projection in enclosed spaces has become a concern post-pandemic, one of the biggest challenges employers face is how to safely distance their employees from one another.  With barriers becoming synonymous with protection, a rise in cubicle-style offices, modular pods within open-plan spaces, tactile-free walkways and screen partitioning desks is likely.  But these may bring negative impacts due to the hard surfaces reflecting sound and reducing speech intelligibility.

Without adequate acoustic treatment, an office can quickly turn into an unnecessarily stressful environment, directly compromising employee comfort.  Navigating this problem without causing colleagues to have to raise their voices and risk potential transmission, will become imperative in safely reintroducing staff back to the workplace.

Is unwanted noise really that big a deal?  Does it make that significant a difference in the well-being and productivity of the workforce?

The short answer is yes.  A recent survey from estate agents Savills found that 83 percent of workers say noise levels were important to them – up from 77 percent in 2016.  The Control of Noise Regulations 2005 require employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work.  Employers are compelled to address the issue of noise, since an unhappy workforce is an unproductive one.  Poor office acoustics can also lead to employees taking more sick days, which has a serious knock-on effect to business efficiency.

Sound absorption is vital for successful business

Some open offices offer desirable amenities, from appealing break rooms to lounge spaces.  However, no matter how many beanbags, dress-down Fridays, or ping-pong tables you have, without adequate acoustic treatment, an office can quickly turn into an unnecessarily stressful environment.

According to the Chief Medical Officer in England, noise is second only to air pollution in damaging public health while the World Health Organisation highlights subsequent health issues such as tinnitus, sleep disturbance, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and more.  The noise in question does not have to be overwhelmingly loud; levels start to be dangerous from just 65 dB, about the volume of regular conversation, easily achieved in offices and public social spaces, according to an Interface study.

Investec offices treated with SonaSpray K-13 mid grey.  Credit to BW Workplace Experts.

The benefits of effective acoustics on office occupants

Such stress-factors have a detrimental effect on employee health and productivity, impacting a company’s bottom line.  Creating a high-quality acoustic environment for workers should therefore remain a key health and safety consideration.  Savills found that only 39 percent of UK workers said their workplace had a positive impact on their mental health.  There is clearly still work to be done to get these numbers up, and provide inspirational, welcoming workspaces that are safe and actually good for employees’ health.

Demand for flexible, healthy, attractive workspaces

With this in mind, there is a growing trend in the architect and interior design community to create acoustically-designed workspaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but create a welcoming experience for future inhabitants.  There is a shift to design offices around the people using them, rather than designing a workspace, and expecting people to use them productively.

The benefits of effective acoustics on office occupants

Office design and productivity

Acoustic control is an investment that pays for itself through better productivity of employees.  Fortunately, there is a range of architectural acoustic finishes for ceilings, such as sprays or plasters, to help designers create calm and inviting spaces that ensure employees don’t struggle to hear, or be heard.

Acoustic spray solutions create a healthier aural environment, without compromising interior design.  And there’s good news for office owners adapting to the new normal: these ceiling treatments allow complete flexibility with Cat A and B configuration and reconfiguration.  Dividing structures such as screens or open-topped pods can be installed without disrupting the acoustic spray finish applied on the ceiling above.

Taking steps to provide quality acoustics within commercial buildings will directly improve the comfort and productivity of occupants as they return to work.

Building owners stand to benefit as they make progress towards meeting the WELL Building Standard®, the blueprint for creating better spaces, as well as other essential wellbeing and sustainability design certifications.  Additionally, for employers, there are tools and building certification systems available that architects and contractors can work towards when designing new workplaces, empowering employers to put the health of their employees first.

Investec offices treated with SonaSpray K-13 mid grey.  Credit to BW Workplace Experts.

Wellness and duty of care

Whether it’s for a fit-out, refurbishment, or new build, taking workplace acoustics seriously and removing distractions caused by excess noise will ensure workspaces sound as good as they look.  Our survey of 2,000 UK employees, found 44 percent can’t concentrate when it’s noisy at work.  Exactly half believe noise and bad acoustics negatively affects productivity.

Employers have a legal obligation to protect their employees and could be lining themselves up for potential future claims if they do not take the issue seriously. 

We are making progress, but education is still required to reduce the scourge of noise in workspaces, to protect business interests, and safeguard the health of employees.  It’s time to turn down the noise.  

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