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Driven to distraction

Open plan offices are notoriously noisy, but they are also cost-efficient and good for collaboration. Tayla Ansell explains how to maximise their benefits and minimise their drawbacks

Era Screens Eden Wall Tiles
Era Screens Eden Wall Tiles

Today, almost half (49%) of UK offices are open plan, more than double the global average of 23%, according to the Steelcase Global Report. That’s no surprise: open plan offices promote collaboration and are a cost-saving option for business owners. On the downside, the lack of internal walls makes them somewhat noisy.

Noise travels much easier in an open space, which can cause real problems for workers, especially those who require quiet to concentrate or who are quiet by nature, as Jonathan M. Hindle, group managing director of KI EMEA, points out.

“Disruptions arising from large open plan office environments compromise concentration and have a more pronounced impact on introverts. On average, introverts make up almost half the population of the UK, so the impact of office noise should not be underestimated,” he said.

Frequent distractions inevitably take a toll on staff productivity as it takes time for people to get back into the flow once interrupted.

Andy Deacon, commercial director at Era Screens, has done the maths: “It takes an average of 15 minutes to regain concentration levels if disrupted whilst completing an important task, so five disruptions over an 8-hour day equate to a 15% reduction in productivity. In a business of 60 employees, this is the same as paying 9 people to do nothing all day.”

Businesses that spend money controlling unwanted noise will often see a return on investment, which perhaps explains why noise controlling products in Era Screens’ Agile Working range represent its largest area of growth, accounting for 34% of revenue last year.

Serena Borghero, director of media relations and 360° communications at Steelcase, points out that exposure to noise can also affect one’s health, contributing to sleep disorders and impaired cognition. “A busy road produces around 85 decibels and open plan offices produce up to 65 decibels. This makes intellectual work harder than it should be,” she said.

Era Screens Nautilus Phone Booth
Era Screens Nautilus Phone Booth

Activity-based working
So what can be done to reduce the problem of noise in the open plan office?

Intelligent and thoughtful office design is a good starting point. Consider having separate, dedicated areas for collaborative work and quiet work or keeping shared printers in one area rather than having personal printers on every desktop.

“Creating an ecosystem of spaces, including some that support private moments and others that support collaboration, is critical to promote employee creativity, engagement, wellbeing and, ultimately, drive innovation,” explained Steelcases’s Borghero.

“Whether it’s a private office on an upper floor or an open-plan workstation, people are discovering that one type of work space is no longer enough. Choice and control is not only a significant component in building engagement; it has become the new status symbol for today’s workers. When workers can choose from a palette of places – an ecosystem of interrelated zones and settings that support their physical, cognitive and emotional needs – they can draw inspiration and energy from others, as well as being restored by the calm of privacy.”

Hindle agrees that a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer adequate. “The workplace strategy for many companies is transforming from traditional open plan bench environments to having more variety and choice to support flexible, active working,” he said.

“A good starting point is to develop an understanding of individuals in a team and the nature of the tasks they regularly undertake. As a rule of thumb, we like to encourage our customers to provide an office landscape rich in variety and choice, so people can find their ideal work setting. This ensures they can find a bit of peace and quiet when they need it and a lively, more vibrant space when that’s appropriate.”

Noise reduction also comes down to individual responsibility. It is important to remind staff to be considerate to those around them; to be mindful of how loud they’re talking when others are working; to take personal conversations outside the workspace; and not to use a speaker phone.

Era Screens (Quiet Space)
Era Screens (Quiet Space)

Easy as ABC
These steps can be complemented with the use of acoustic products that absorb, block and cover unwanted noise – the ABC of acoustics.

Hard materials reflect sound, bouncing it around an open space, while soft materials absorb sound energy, which is why carpets are a better choice than hard flooring when it comes to noise reduction. Acoustic ceiling and wall tiles, like Eden by Era Screens, are another good option as they reduce reverberation time – the length of time it takes for sound to fall 60 decibels from its initial level. Even high backed fabric sofas and strategically placed plants can absorb and deflect sounds in the office.

Solid panels can be used as a barrier around and between workers, to contain their noise and block the conversations of others. For example, the Steelcase Divisio Frameless Screen can be used to create a boundary between facing desks, while larger screens, such as Nautilus by Era Screens, can be positioned to stop sound travelling from more noisy, relaxed areas into spaces for quiet concentration. Nautilus panels have been tested and rated at 30dB noise reduction thanks to an internal layer of sound absorbent foam.

For added privacy, Steelcase supplies the Brody WorkLounge, a comfortable cocoon where workers can go to concentrate. Another, more dramatic solution from Era Screens is Quiet Space, an enclosed pod system that provides a separate private space within an open plan office.

It’s also a good idea to contain noise associated with technology and specific activities. For example, KI’s Breakout, a stackable modular third space system, is used as wrap screening around printers in the new UK headquarters of film production giant Paramount Pictures. This solution enhances both acoustics and aesthetics by containing the noise of printers and bringing bursts of colour to the environment. To minimise the distraction of other people’s phone conversations, the Nautilus range from Era Screens includes a Phone Booth and Hood specially designed for phone use.

Headsets with noise cancellation technology can also help block ambient sound – at its destination rather than its source. When hearing aid manufacturer Oticon found its employees were struggling to concentrate in the constant buzz of a large open office, it approached Sennheiser to see if its MB 660 UC headset could help.

Brian Brorsbøl, director of product management CC&O at Sennheiser Communications, says the MB660 has proved to be an effective and versatile solution. “Following a 40-day trial period, participants experienced a significant improvement in their concentration and focus at work. Their ability to communicate and collaborate efficiently was also enhanced as the headset’s advanced microphone system caters for phone calls. Some even experienced a feeling of saved energyas they were able to create their own ‘silent room’ to focus on tasks in the middle of a bustling office,” he said.

One of the strengths of the MB660 is that it incorporates Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation technology, which lets users adjust the degree of noise cancellation for a more comfortable listening experience. Sometimes, it is better to hear some noise rather than complete silence.

This is also the theory behind the use of sound to cover noise, as Hindle explains: “We have to distinguish between welcome and unwelcome noise – silence is not the answer. The source, repetition, volume and frequency of noise can all play a role in either improving an office environment or making it a living nightmare!”

This year, Plantronics introduced Habitat Soundscaping, an acoustic management service for open plan offices that uses nature-inspired audio and visuals to mitigate distractions due to speech. Intelligent software automatically senses disruptive speech and adjusts natural sounds to help workers stay focused.

The service uses recordings of natural water, which research indicates is most effective at reducing the impact of intelligible speech. Real waterfalls or virtual displays of serene landscapes are used to complement the audio, creating a multi-sensory experience that has been shown to improve cognitive functioning and mood.

The open plan office doesn’t have to drive workers to distraction. Incorporating acoustic solutions to absorb, block and cover noise, alongside changes to office design and staff behaviour, will give you the benefits of open plan without the drawbacks.