Over the past twenty years or so, we’ve seen a clear and consistent shift towards open plan offices. While they certainly have their benefits, fostering employee communication and saving costs on space, one of the most consistent complaints about open offices is the noise. Now, there’s a meaningful difference between “sound” and “noise”. “Sound” isn’t necessarily unwelcome while “noise” is consistently described as unwanted, jarring, or uninvited. This gives us the interesting task of reducing noise in the workplace to improve sound. Indeed, David Craig, Senior Vice President of CannonDesign, New York, has recently written that “the average employee does want fewer distractions, [but they also want] more frequent interactions within their teams; they want more energy and buzz.”
Ways to Reduce Noise in the Workplace
To reduce noise in the workplace, thereby increasing employee happiness and employee productivity, there are three types of workplace changes you can make: you can block sound transfer with a physical barrier, you can absorb ambient noise, or you can mask that noise. You may have seen some of these tips before, but seeing them categorized may well give you a fresh perspective, and inspire some ideas of your own.
Blocking Noise in the Workplace
It’s tempting to use this option like a cudgel, separating people with physical barriers to prevent noise transfer, but doing so would also undercut the benefits of an open office plan. Removing impenetrable barriers contributes to employee productivity too, so use this option dexterously. Partitions and high-backed furniture, about four and a half feet high, can help you reduce noise in the workplace. When seated, employees are shielded from much of the ambient noise bouncing around the room, but, by standing up over the barricades, they can collaborate just as effectively.
While you’re at it, don’t discount layout. Grouping discrete clusters of desks together will encourage tight-knit teamwork while blocking noise from other clusters. Cordoning off the photocopier, fax machine, and so on into a separate room can keep the noise out of the workspace. You might consider taking this a step further and creating dedicated quiet areas or quiet hours during the workday. An empty conference room is a handy refuge, but a sound proof, glass-walled oasis is a godsend for employee happiness.
Absorbing Noise in the Workplace
This one tends to be a nice middle-of-the-road approach. If you’re willing to undertake a major renovation, soundproofing can be a dependable long-term solution to your noisy workplace problem. Adding sound-absorbing elements to your ceilings alone will make a considerable difference, but don’t discount your walls as well. Textured, sound-absorbing installations on your walls can carry an aesthetic bonus, and the intricacies of their designs can focus minds and contribute to employee productivity, even with a rigidly open plan.
A rubber underlay beneath vinyl flooring can be almost as effective as carpet at absorbing sound, without the excessive cleaning costs. If you’re redoing your floors, look for something with a high IIC (impact insulation class) rating; it’s a measure of how effective something is at attenuating impact sounds (like footsteps).
If full-scale renovations, or large-scale workplace changes aren’t appropriate for your circumstances, you still have a few good options. The best of the best, and this is true whatever your approach to office structure, is plants. According to article, “8 Ways to Reduce Noise in the Workplace,” FormaSpace suggests various office plant types such as the Peace Lilly, Madagascan Dragon trees, Ficus trees, and Kentia Palm to help prevent noise within open spaces. Plants purify the air, they have a clear and measureable impact on employee happiness, and they inhibit reverberations.
Masking Noise in the Workplace
While often discounted, this can be your best weapon in the war against noise: make more noise. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a good reason for it. Your brain is perfectly good at ignoring noise that doesn’t carry semantic or interpretive value. Though a thing might be loud it needn’t be understood. Have you ever been completely unable to ignore someone on a cellphone, even though you’ve had no trouble putting aside the conversations of the people around you? Yes, you can reduce noise in the workplace by making more noise!
When you ignore the conversations around you, your brain is listening to a dialogue and filing it away as irrelevant. It can’t do that with a phone call, because it keeps hearing a series of disjointed phrases (since you can’t hear both halves) and treating each phrase as though it were a new conversation, at every single interchange. It can be monumentally distracting, but helping those disconnected conversations and sounds to blend into the background is easier than you might think.
Noise cancellation technologies work along two basic principles: either they overrule noise with a desirable, repetitive, predictable sound (like rainfall or ocean waves, colloquially referred to as “white noise”), or they directly counter a sound by playing its perfect opposite, equalizing the ambient sound to zero. These are variously classified as passive and active noise cancellation.
If white noise machines are overkill for your open plan office, noise-cancellation headphones are a wonderful option. Unlike other workplace changes, these need to be highly individualized, so have each employee research his or her perfect solution. Keep in mind that poorly sized headphones can cause earaches, headaches, fevers, and, in extreme cases, lockjaw. Help your employees find the best noise-cancelling headsets
to stay focused and reduce noise in the workplace.