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Sound Opinion: Environmental Impacts on Employee Success

By: Scott Hamilton

As businesses continue to define their “new normal” after an extended pandemic shutdown, I find it ironic that the phrase “return to the office” evokes the sentiment “you can’t go home again.” Thomas Wolfe was right—if you try to return to a place from your past, it won’t be the same as it was.

Or perhaps it is us who are no longer the same.

Working from home led many to develop new preferences and work requirements. At the same time, the traditional open office environment and its associated problems were lying dormant waiting for our return. Nothing changed… and everything changed.

At home, we were able to tailor our environments to suit our individual needs and preferences, with customized desks and efficient setups. Upon returning to the office, we find that the one-size-fits-all rows of desks do not adequately meet our needs. Privacy is no longer a given. Freedom from distractions is no longer guaranteed. The new normal is facing old problems. And most of these problems revolve around sound.

Maybe it’s the “too loud neighbor” or the office that is so quiet every little noise or conversation seems amplified. As an acoustical consultant, I have a keen interest in sound and its impact on our work lives. As employers look for ways to entice workers back to the office, they should be looking beyond providing free snacks, hosted happy hours, and ping-pong tables and focus on how they deal with sound to create a more welcoming environment. The following considers where we’ve been, how we got to this point, and where we’re headed—acoustically.

Working from home or returning to the office: Pick your chaos

For many, the pandemic lockdown transformed how and where we do business. The more fortunate enjoyed the luxury of spare rooms transformed into remote workspaces; they finally got a private office! Others were forced to set up shop in shared spaces with partners also working from home or with kids trying to attend online schools. And unlike online video conferences, real life doesn’t come with a mute button. These people are eager to escape children crying, dogs barking, and the many other distractions that can come with a chaotic home environment. In addition to the relative peace and order of the traditional office, these folks may have missed the daily social interaction they previously enjoyed with co-workers.

For others, however, the forced social experiment of the past two years has opened their eyes to the benefits of working from home. Many discovered a better work/life balance and more productive time formerly spent on daily commutes. These people are understandably hesitant to return to status quo of “business as usual” of the pre-COVID office.

Talk to an introvert and an extrovert about their experience during the lockdown and you’ll likely hear vastly different stories. Now businesses are trying to determine how open their doors again in a way that accommodates both groups. Complicating the equation is the introduction of the now ubiquitous Teams and Zoom meetings. For in-office workers, these teleconference calls add another dimension to the dynamics and distractions of the workplace environment. But this is just the latest in a steady stream of changes.

The evolution of open office design continues

The open office plan has a long and complex history in America. The origins of the open office can be traced back to the 19th century, when the industrial revolution led to the creation of large, factory-like office buildings. These early office spaces were typically designed to maximize efficiency and minimize costs, and they often featured long rows of desks arranged in a large, open room.

Over time, the open office design evolved and became more sophisticated. In the early 20th century, architects and designers began to experiment with different layouts and configurations, incorporating features such as cubicles and partitions to create a more flexible and adaptable workspace. By the mid-20th century, the open office had become the dominant office design in America, and it remains a popular choice for many organizations today. Company leaders are quick to cite the perceived benefits of open office design, including:

  • improved collaboration and communication among employees
  • greater flexibility and adaptability in the workspace
  • increased interaction and socialization among team members
  • the ability to accommodate more employees in a limited space
  • cost savings on construction and space
  • the potential for increased productivity and creativity

Far too often, these observations are made looking out from an executive office doorway. When employees are asked their opinion, the benefits are far less clear. Drawbacks to open office design most often cited by those experiencing it firsthand include:

  • increased noise and distractions, which can lead to reduced productivity and concentration
  • a lack of privacy and personal space, which can be stressful for some employees
  • the spread of illness and germs, as employees are in closer proximity to one another
  • the potential for increased conflict and decreased morale among employees
  • the loss of valuable storage and organization space
  • the need for additional investment in sound masking technology and other equipment to mitigate distractions

The challenges of the open office have been explored in numerous articles, op-ed columns, and scientific journals—and employee exit interviews. Until relatively recently, the answer to the question about productivity was subjective. Putting teams together with few physical barriers would intuitively lead to more spontaneous interactions, greater coordination on projects, and more communication overall. Recent studies, however, take a more quantitative look at the situation.

According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there is a 14% drop in performance when a worker moves from a traditional office to an open activity-based workplace (ABW). However, moving from the nosier open space to a quiet office environment, cognitive performance increased significantly by 16.9%, and performance increased by 21.9%. The study emphasizes the importance for companies to provide optional areas or rooms free of distractions for employees working on tasks that demand greater concentration.

And the impact of unwanted sound goes beyond a drop in productivity. According to Julian Treasure, a much-sought international speaker on the subject of sound, acoustics affects us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively, and behaviorally—even though we are not aware of it. That is why special attention to sound is vital in the built environment. Treasure has been evangelizing this call for over a decade as highlighted in his TED Talk, “Why Architects Need to Use Their Ears.” He says it is time to stop designing spaces that are pleasant to look at but are otherwise driving us crazy because of the lack of attention given to sound design.

Adapting sound for the future

Disagreement about the impact open office designs have on productivity aside, both pro and con lists shown above overtly and implicitly highlight the effect sound has on the individual and on communication dynamics overall. Good or bad, it appears the open office is here to stay. The question should not be about the merits of this workplace design, but rather how to make it work for everyone.

The ubiquitous use of headphones in today’s open offices illustrates how some individuals approach creating their own personal space. It is a solution some managers even encourage as they see the resulting increase in concentration and a drop in stress and frustration. I agree the judicious use of headphones can be beneficial in certain situations where other mitigating measures are not possible. On the positive side, headphones can:

  • help individuals prone to distraction in bustling open office setting better focus on their work by listening to familiar music to help them stay on task for longer periods
  • serve as a signal to others that the wearer is busy and not open to unnecessary chit chat
  • reduce stress level by transporting listener to their “happy place” of soothing tunes

There are risks to the use of headphones in the office setting as well, including:

  • appearing antisocial or unprofessional to colleagues
  • missing opportunities for spontaneous interactions with team members that can improve collaboration on tasks
  • being disconnected from the day-to-day social structure of a community many of us spend most of our time in
  • increasing friction between office neighbors who may feel ignored or irritated by the barely audible hip-hop you are enjoying at full volume that is partially escaping from your headset to the people around you

Clear communication and agreement about the acceptable use of headphones by employees can help avoid many of these issues. Something as simple as posting a sign saying indicating openness to outside interactions such as, “Wearing earbuds, tap me if you need something,” or “I’ve got my headphones on, interrupt if important,” or even “I’m in the zone, interrupt me for emergencies only.” Limiting the use of these devices to times when they are absolutely necessary will also help.

In many instances, however, applied sound dampening or masking measures can be engineered to reduce or eliminate the need to don the headgear. Consulting with a qualified acoustics expert can be a great first step in solving problems before they happen.

In addition to sound masking, a careful study of office space layout and the location of individuals can help address perceived sound issues and other problems cited in open office environments. Such an examination could reveal the need for:

  • more communal spaces that encourage formal and informal gatherings of workers to share interaction
  • separate office spaces that can be reserved and used when a quiet area free from distractions is needed to successfully complete a specific task
  • zoned areas that group workers with similar noise and distraction tolerances
  • phone booth rooms that allow individuals a place for private or confidential conversations

Unfortunately, there is no off-the-shelf, one size fits all solution to creating the perfect office environment. There is no single answer to how a space should be designed. Much is based on the culture of the organization and its members. Whatever the layout, however, sound design is a crucial element.

Office design will continue to evolve and attention to acoustics will play a growing role. The two-plus years away from the traditional office has given many employees the time to reflect upon and understand what they want. A competitive labor market is giving them to leverage to push company leaders to listen to their needs.

The future office needs to be a place that offers and supports all the things we missed during lockdown—face to face interactions, team bonding, mentoring opportunities, spontaneous collaboration sessions, and the serendipity of new ideas sparked by unplanned conversations. Building owners and company leaders have a unique opportunity to reimagine these spaces to be as welcoming, healthy, and supportive as possible. Paying attention to acoustics will play a big part in these improvements.

Scott Hamilton has extensive experience working with acoustics and has successfully managed numerous projects, including data centers, concert halls, universities, healthcare facilities, and more. He freely shares his knowledge to further ESD’s mission to improve society through the built environment.

Contact us to learn more about how ESD can help solve your acoustic and other built environment challenges.

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