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Cleaning Up Noise Pollution at Work

Monday, October 10, 2022

Noisy colleagues account for 40% of workers having their productivity negatively affected.  Is it time to turn the volume down?

Let’s start this thought process by taking a trip, you’re driving to a new location for an important meeting, you don’t want to be late but your sat nav is glitchy and there’s an abundance of street furniture that is just not helping with directions.

In that situation or one similar have you ever found yourself turning the volume down on your radio? I know I have.  Reflecting on that move you would think the primary sense required is vision and your ears are only good for picking up that sat nav direction so why shut down the additional noise?

Sometimes a challenging manoeuvre such as parking the car or weaving through narrow streets can also be aided by a quieter cabin.

Under those circumstances the brain needs to gather all of the concentration and focus it can. Noise, even if it’s your favourite song of the moment from Harry Styles, will distract your thought process.  Your motor response of switching  it off or right down is an entirely normal, logical act.

That’s the driving lesson out of the way but what other lessons have we learnt from our recent experiences during the pandemic.

Many workers encountered and increased time at home and that was either blissful if not a little dull or chaotic and rather challenging, especially for those with young families. Those charged with working from home for the first time had to find and create new locations, develop routines and ways to be productive avoiding distractions and conflicting activities.  It wasn’t easy.

One thing that would come close to the top of the “Things I need when working from home” list would be peace and quiet, not necessarily total silence but a minimal level of noise so as to aid concentration and maintain productivity.  We all remember and I’m sure can relate now to the unfortunate guest on the BBC news item who found his space infiltrated by his young children.  That was back in 2017. Professor Robert Kelly was on camera from home discussing South Korean politics with the BBC news anchor when his two children Marion and James bounded into the room behind him. His wife Jung-a Kim valiantly attempting to round up the intruders.  We all had our moment of schadenfreude but now I’d imagine most of us can relay at least one episode of our own similar to that of the Professor’s.

Prior to the Pandemic, 2019 Interface a global commercial flooring company released the results of a workplace study, undertaken with Radius Market Research, which uncovered how sound and acoustics impact employees. Over 2,000 workers from U.S.A, U.K. and Australia participated in the study.

The survey identified that noise negatively impacts 69% of employees’ concentration levels, productivity, and creativity.  Across the three distinct geographical regions 44% confirmed that their company had done nothing to address distracting noise levels, leaving employees to solve the problem themselves.

This picture may well sound familiar but having now had the added impact of a Pandemic and shift in workplace environments it’s not surprising that noise is yet again featuring as an increasingly contentious issue.

How to Reduce Noise Pollution?

1. Open Plan B

The traditional open plan layout offers lots of space, shiny surfaces and multiple occupants each with an idea of what’s an appropriate noise level to work at should be.  Consider reducing the overall noise level by breaking up spaces into smaller units, cubicles or work areas. Partitions will help break up the sound.  Either designing a space for individuals or having the workplace equivalent of the “Quiet Carriage” on a train.

2. The Green Workplace

In addition to the physical design layout you can also improve the environment by adding organic materials such as plants, views of open, softer natural lighting rather than harsh halogen bulbs.

The use of “living walls” and hanging plants has proven popular and is an excellent soundproofing solution as well as introducing an improved atmosphere whilst they may not clean the air for us they can offer a much calmer backdrop aiding greater levels of concentration.

3. Natural Light & Windows

Our view of the wider world is important.  I recall working in central London many years ago in an office that had no natural light.  It was a depressing, soulless environment that we did our best to liven up but it often felt as though we were “below decks” and this created a claustrophobic feel.  There are ways to overcome this as mentioned above and in addition, you can create the effect of natural light through appropriate “window-like” alcoves that could be back lit to suggest natural light.

The main windows offering a view of the world should be as soundproofed as possible to reduce traffic, weather and additional distracting noises.

4. Look Up and Down

Ceilings and floors can provide huge flat, reflective areas that allow sound to travel.  Looking at soundproofing ceilings with tiles or a false ceiling if the current one doesn’t support tiles.  The floor may be shiny tiles or wood, again this can be broken up with strips of fabric, rugs or carpet tiles.

5. WFH

Initially, there had been considerable resistance to permitting workers from remaining at home once the worst of the Pandemic was over.  The truth is that productivity levels rose due to the home working routines. This is not to say levels of colleague interaction and face-to-face meetings are not important, they certainly remain essential opportunities for career development.  A 100% WFH existence is not healthy however the sweet spot of striking the right balance can be an individual preference and that can be a challenge to manage.  We would recommend looking at the options above but scaling them to suit the home environment and of course the employee’s budget.  One of the simplest ways to concentrate without soundproofing every inch of your house is to use a good pair of headphones and have calming sounds, rainfall, and waves breaking rather than episodes of The Office USA, podcasts or fast-beat music with lyrics.

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