The need for quiet spaces in the contemporary workplace

While these types of open-plan layouts may enable teamwork and ease of communication, they bring with them a new set of challenges, including increased noise and disturbance. Studies have shown that open-plan workplaces, despite the benefits they bring, are driving employees to distraction through noise pollution.

Analysis firm, Oxford Economics, reached out to 1,200 employees across various industries – 74% of which worked in an open-plan environment. Over half of respondents complained about noise levels, whilst the majority named ‘uninterrupted work time’ at the top of their wish lists.

Every little factor at your office – from the aesthetics and design to acoustics – has implications for performance, and it is obvious that the push for open-plan workspaces is causing problems for employee productivity.

Think about your own office – is it conducive to productivity? Is there opportunity to find a quiet space to hone in and focus on those difficult tasks? Each individual has their own preference when it comes to their ideal working conditions, so how do you begin to strike a balance between a noisy, distracting office and one that is filled with silence?

The open-plan office: connection or distraction?

In the era of social innovation, collaboration and busy offices, quiet work spaces might seem like an unattainable luxury.

Whilst many hold the opinion that open-plan offices are counterproductive, others might suggest that working in a private, quiet space disconnects staff from the goals of the organisation. Many workplaces entertain the idea that innovation springs from the chaos of social workplaces that promote near constant dialogue.

But is this really the ideal environment? An article by William Belk featured in Hackernoon explained that High Performance Employees (HPEs) – those who solve the hardest problems in a company – require quiet, even solitude, for extended periods of time. Up to 58% of these types of employees think they need more quiet in their workspaces.

Quiet improves

It's not just high performance types that benefit from peace and quiet. In 2004, a study conducted by the Journal of Sound and Vibration in Sweden found that subjects forced to listen to common office noises like heating vents had a harder time paying attention, were slower to respond to questions, and were incorrect in their answers more often than subjects who listened to the same sounds, but at a reduced level.

The science of sound

Whether we're aware of it or not, our brains always process the sounds in our environment. This higher cognitive load puts more stress on our grey matter while we perform other tasks. If you think of your brain as a battery, the excess noise causes it to ‘drain’ faster, leaving you fatigued, decreasing productivity as the day goes on.

This happens regardless of whether we’re actually listening or not. According to Harvard Medical researcher, Jo Sollet, humans are evolved to notice changes in our environment – "We're designed to be's very hard to shut it off."

That means it’s not just noisy offices that distract and detract from our workplace productivity. Workplaces that are too quiet can also play havoc with our focus, where the tapping of a single keyboard stands out, tweaking our brain’s cognitive behaviour.

Respect sound privacy for your employees

An open plan office is a hub of communication; chit-chat, phone conversations, meetings and music. Every team has their own way of functioning; some divisions talk and collaborate constantly throughout the work day, whilst others require near silence to work through technical tasks. Either way, staff expect some level of sound privacy.

The science of sound

A 2013 study from the University of Sydney found that ‘sound privacy’ ranked the highest office frustration among workers in open-plan workspaces. Almost 60% indicated that not being able to control what they hear (and what others hear from them) was a cause for concern and distraction that lead to substandard work performance. To put this in perspective, visual privacy only bothered between 20% and 40% of respondents, while just over 20% expressed dissatisfaction with thermal conditions.
So while less than one in three office workers are worried about general noise, the inability of open-plan offices to guarantee sound privacy for its staff is bothering a significant number of workers. The same report found that on average, an office worker loses about 86 minutes a day due to distractions. Creating a sense of privacy has been proven to boost job performance, so for businesses with an open-plan workplace, it’s imperative to ensure you’re doing your best to respect your employees’ privacy.

Asking the right questions

For many offices, the best way to tackle the noise problem is to start with privacy. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What can you do to guarantee conversational privacy for teams?
  • Does audible conversation drift across the busy workplace?
  • What can you add (or take away) that might create more productive sound profiles?
  • Would you be comfortable working day-to-day in the same environment?

It's important for office designers to understand the role privacy and personal space plays in productivity. We all have our own specific rituals and ways of working. Giving people the space to do that can be tricky in an open-plan office, but for companies seeking the best out of their employees, it's a conversation worth having.

Control ambient noise

Not all noise is equally distracting. For example, unwanted, comprehensible speech is generally a nuisance and can break your concentration. Vocal ‘murmurs’ however, tend to bleed into the background as ambient noise. If your office space is naturally noisy despite efforts to dampen the sound, introducing ‘white noise’ or other ambient sounds can help promote a more productive workplace.

Budget for sound absorbing materials

A warehouse conversion makes for a stylish, open plan office, but polished concrete and other hard surfaces aren’t exactly great for dampening sound. Popular trends in coworking and collaboration only exacerbate that problem.

With a bit of planning, sound absorbing materials can be stylish. Consider:

  • Shaped drop ceilings
  • Acoustic dampening wall art
  • Installing carpet

Both these types of modern office fixtures can help reduce the acoustic effects in your office space.

Ceiling fixtures: Baffles and clouds

Hung from the ceiling, baffles and clouds are structures that look stylish and dampen acoustics through large spaces or areas with high ceilings. The difference between these two types of fixtures are:

  • Clouds: Hang along the horizontal
  • Baffles: Hang vertically to the ceiling and floor.

Each type comes in a number of styles to suit many types of offices. Choosing the right baffle or cloud will not only dampen loud noises, but add charm and sophistication to open spaces. You can even get fixtures that double as lighting solutions to make your open plan office even more versatile, such as the Hood pendant designed by Form Us With Love for Ateljé Lyktan. This type of pendant is ideal for the contemporary office space; its sound absorbing materials can be used to control excess workplace noise and create intimate, adaptable spaces within an open-plan environment.

The pendant’s shape and unique modular structure makes it the ideal open office lighting source, providing overhead illumination that is tailored to most office tasks. Suspended on adjustable wires, the Hood pendant uses an energy-efficient LED light source and comes in five different colours, which can be used to help define office space areas and guide the flow of foot traffic (and conversations) throughout the workplace.

Wall fixtures: Absorption vs proofing

When it comes to managing noise levels in the office, it’s important to understand the difference between sound absorption versus soundproofing. This is especially true for wall fixtures. Many designers still act under the impression that the common ‘egg crate foam’ on walls can help to absorb sound. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, rather, foam absorbs echo but it doesn’t stop sound.

When it comes to your office walls, echo absorption is commonly found on the walls, whilst soundproofing is usually found inside the walls. To distinguish sound absorbing materials from soundproofing products, consider the following;

  • Sound absorption: products designed to absorb echo within a room are generally soft and light, like foam. They are intended to soften up the surfaces of a room to reduce the echo in that space.
  • Soundproofing: products designed to block sound are usually found inside the wall construction and use dense, heavy materials.

So before applying new materials to your office walls, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve. Do you want to limit the echo of shoes down a long, polished concrete hallway, or muffle the sound of voices in a meeting area from the open-plan office floor?

Planting the seeds for good acoustics

Office space designers have long espoused the virtues of indoor plants for improving air quality, brightening up the workspace and generally enhancing office productivity. As it turns out, indoor plants can also help act as acoustic dampeners, too.

Absorbing, rather than reflecting sound is particularly useful in areas of the office where there is fluctuating ambient noise and echoes that impede the need for clear communication, such as reception areas and entrance halls.

For companies looking to draw attention to their greenery, well positioned spotlights and wall luminaires can enhance the natural beauty of office atriums, gardens and indoor plant life.

Finding solitude in the open plan

Designated quiet spaces

By repurposing a conference room or office into a dedicated quiet room, businesses can offer staff areas to focus on getting things done, free from distraction.

Just like a train carriage, dedicated quiet spaces are for silent interactions without the sound of music, meetings or loud activities. Beyond the gentle tap of a keyboard, the turning of a page and a scratch of a pen, there really shouldn’t be any other sound in the space.

Quiet space layouts are influenced by what is available to the organisation at any given time. Personal tables or cubicles are often better than a large shared desk. Staff won’t be using the area for collaborative or team building exercises.

Similarly, a lighting mood that promotes focus and attentiveness should be considered over more meditative moods. If the lighting is too serene, staff might find the area ‘sleepy’. Instead, offer a combination of natural light, desk lamps and overhead lighting to provide flexibility in task and purpose.

Define loud spaces as well

Regardless of your office profile there’s only so much you can do to triage loud noise. Offices are social places where things happen, people communicate, strategies are formulated and work is undertaken.

If one notion to rise out of the open-plan office is that of quiet spaces, another is the need for designated loud zones. In smaller offices these can be mixed-use spaces. Teams can use them for:

  • Collaborative project work
  • Workshops and meetings
  • Presentations
  • Team activities

For example, IT departments sometimes find themselves doing noisy manual labour, working on hardware components. Dedicated spaces for these activities allow for adjustments in noise dampening to be focused around those areas.

Modular and movable

A more flexible open-plan office can empower staff to define their own way forward. ESI Ergonomic Solutions is conquering acoustic aggravation by providing more freedom to their staff to move about their office space:

“We designed the workstations so each employee can decide which direction they face – left, right, or centre. Giving people choices and flexibility with how they work goes a long way in helping them feel comfortable and productive." says CEO of ESI Carol Keogh.

Modular and movable furniture allows office workers to realise the dream of collaborative, flexible working spaces while negating many of the issues loud acoustics bring by defining their own moods and spaces.

But fully flexible working environments aren’t a guaranteed path to success. Organised chaos can bring inspiration, but it also brings conflict. Office designers need to think about more than just people. Materials can also provide solutions.

Rethink fit and finish

The type of finishings used on office furniture and fixed appliances is a hidden cause of unwanted echo and poor acoustics. Common hard, reverberating surfaces found in offices include:

  • Glass
  • Metals
  • Wood
  • Concrete

An entire office fit-out is probably out of the question, but awareness of the material combinations that do contribute to the noise makes it easier to plan your office space. To find out more about the effects of reverberation based on material makeup of your office space, this handy calculator based on Sabine’s equation can help put you on the right track.

For example, IT departments sometimes find themselves doing noisy manual labour, working on hardware components. Dedicated spaces for these activities allow for adjustments in noise dampening to be focused around those areas.

Controlling walkups

Even if you have no problem concentrating in a busy open plan office, the walkup remains a persistent distraction for many office workers. Donning some headphones might drown out the noise, and switching your phone to voicemail might stop the cold calls, but there's no way to physically stop people from walking up and distracting you, right?

One office has found a way around this predicament. Jackson Carpenter of Lucid Software explains that while he enjoys the busy social dynamics of his workplace, he couldn't get anything done without the 'red-green’ solution.

'Blocking’ sound

Everyone at Lucid Software has a block on their desk with one side painted green and the other red. When green is visible, coworkers are encouraged to walk up and start a conversation. Red means you're in the zone. Do not disturb!

“In this kind of work environment that’s important.” Carpenter tells the BBC.

Researchers from the University of California found that office workers are interrupted as often as every three minutes. With precious time wasted trying to refocus after every conversation, it's no wonder office workers sometimes struggle with productivity.

Exterior noise

Not all distracting noise is created internally, and acoustic dampening can only do so much. Exterior noise can affect the productivity and wellbeing of your staff, particularly if your site is located;

  • Near a busy freeway or highway
  • Near a carpark or loading dock, particularly with access to the building
  • Near noisy neighbors that share adjacent walls

Exterior dampening might help mitigate the noise, but internal office layout is just as important. Buffer noisy external zones with workshop areas or loud rooms. Use plants, bookshelves, cupboards and music to cancel out external sounds, and lean into flexible solutions in office interaction.

Wall luminaires can help solve this dilemma by guiding staff and visitors through optimal walkways. Define space for people and these external noisy zones will melt into the background.

Open the conversation

Still not sure where to start with managing acoustics in your workplace? Why not talk to the people who matter to you most – your staff. In the office, day in and day out, your team is best equipped to point out existing problems with excessive noise. Working together, you can solve acoustic woes and thrive in a happier, more productive workplace.