In partnership with the British Council of Offices (BCO), Savills recently published the ‘What Workers Want 2016’ survey. This exposed how one of the biggest frustrations for workers is the lack of quiet spaces where focused work can be carried out: while open-plan offices are still the preferred choice for occupiers, only 45 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the noise levels in their office. Of course, open plan has multiple benefits but the survey does highlight the importance of ensuring there are areas where employees can concentrate on work in a quieter setting.
The Millennial Generation, many of whom will have only ever worked in open-plan environments and who are considered to be skilled multitaskers, should be great advocates. However, according to research from Stanford University, the strain of constantly having to multitask in an office environment has been proven to be detrimental in the long run. Switching from one task to another lowers productivity: on average, 86 minutes of work a day are said to be lost by every employee due to noise distractions and, at its most extreme, multitasking will eventually cause workers to suffer from burnout.
The ideal workspace noise level is suggested to be in the range of 45 to 48 decibels with a uniform backdrop, but as most conversations take place around the 50 decibel mark, the average office will be higher than this. New ways of office working that focus on reducing noise levels as well as aesthetics are therefore needed in order to ensure effective worker productivity occurs.
Some occupiers are already tackling the problem head on through innovative workplace design and smart acoustics. In New York Man Made Music is trying to achieve this at its office through immersive soundscapes such as implementing sonic art installations, featured playlists and coordinating lighting cues. Morningstar, an investment research firm in Chicago, has installed ceiling speakers to play white noise in an attempt to drown out distracting sounds without disturbing phone conversations.
Reduced noise levels in offices can be achieved more cost effectively through encouraging workers to use headphones when undertaking focused work, although this has the downside of them potentially being excluded from important discussions, or to go outside regularly in order to recharge and reset their hearing. Additionally, vacant meeting rooms should be used, which could add an extra 6 per cent to worker productivity according to the BCO.
These strategies are preferable to resorting to installing physical barriers so that collaboration and interaction is not stifled. Alternatively, glass-enclosed areas can be used so that maximum exposure exists to create the effect of a buzzing workspace, but preventing the spread of background noise throughout the entire office.
Clearly, no worker is the same. Therefore a range of workplace layouts in an office is essential to provide different activity-based areas for both collaboration and concentration. Ultimately, however, sound masking is something employers need to be aware of to help manage worker stress levels and increase job satisfaction and output.