Acoustics in the Office

The impact of office acoustics on workplace performance and mood has been well documented within the literature.

Modern workplaces have opted for open-plan office layout as it is believed by many to facilitate communication and interaction between co-workers, which should improve individual work performance and organisational productivity. However, research has observed increases in workplace dissatisfaction and self-reported loss of workplace performance as a result of noise exposure in open planned offices1.

Studies on the impact of workplace acoustics have identified office noise as a potential source of dissatisfaction among office workers, in terms of loss of motivation2, decrease in performance3 and an increase in feelings of annoyance4. A survey on work place satisfaction in office workers was conducted and found that two of the top three causes of dissatisfaction were the lack of sound privacy and high noise levels5. Significantly, these findings were similar across different office layouts including enclosed offices, cubicles and open offices. Noise sources in the office environment include equipment, phones, outdoor traffic and workplace conversation. A more recent study reported that room acoustic has an effect on an individual’s ability to perform workplace tasks such as proofreading, text memory, text typing and learning tasks6.

Researchers have also investigated the effect of varying background noises on workplace performance and reported speech intelligibility to be a crucial factor in the detrimental impact that background speech has on cognitive performance7. Soft speech with poor intelligibility was shown not to impair workplace performance when compared to silence. The addition of continuous background noise has been found to be effective in partially masking intelligible speech8. The effect of adding background continuous noise or background music on cognitive workplace performance tasks was also investigated and it was observed that only continuous noise reduced the detrimental impact of office noise significantly. However, subjective measures revealed that participants preferred background music to continuous noise9.

In recent years an increasing number of buildings are looking to biophilic design with the aim of reducing workplace noise. Biophilic design is an architectural approach to reconnecting building occupants with nature. An increasingly popular aspect of biophilic design is the installation of green roofs and walls with the aim of reducing noise and energy conservation. The acoustic benefits of the presence of plants and vegetation occur due to the diffusion and deflection of sound waves on the trunks, branches and leaves. Research has shown that green roof systems, consisting of low growing vegetation, can result in noise reduction of over 10dB10. Research has also observed that the installation of vertical greenery system can result in a sound reduction of up to 15dB11. Studies have also investigated the effect of plant placement on noise and observed a significant reduction. The addition of planets within the workplace environment has also been shown to have positive effect on employee productivity, decrease stress levels and improve mood states12.

Top Tips

  • Engage with your employees to understand how the acoustics negatively impact them
  • Consider how cost-effective solutions could be introduced to help reduce the negative impact of noisy communal areas
  • Introduce biophilic designs to help reduce the effect of office noise
  • Trial different “background” or “white” noise to help break silence in the office

References

  1. Kaarlela-Tuomaala, A., Helenius, R., Keskinen, E., & Hongisto, V. (2009). Effects of acoustic environment on work in private office rooms and open-plan offices – Longitudinal study during relocation. Ergonomics, 52(11), 1423–1444.
  2. Evans, G. W., & Johnson, D. (2000). Stress and open-office noise. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(5), 779–783.
  3. Veitch, J. A. (1990). Office noise and illumination effects on reading comprehension. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 10(3), 209–217.
  4. Sundstrom, E., Town, J, P., Rice, R. W., Osborn, D. P., & Brill, M. (1994). Office noise, satisfaction, and performance. Environment and Behaviours, 26(2), 195–222.
  5. Kim, J., & de Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication tradeoff in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18–26.
  6. Reinten, J., Braat-Eggen, P. E., Hornikx, M., Kort, H. S. M., & Kohlrausch, A. (2017). The indoor sound environment and human task performance: A literature review on the role of room acoustics. Building and Environment, 123, 315–332.
  7. Schlittmeier, S. J., Hellbrück, J., Thaden, R., & Vorländer, M. (2008). The impact of background speech varying in intelligibility: Effects on cognitive performance and perceived disturbance. Ergonomics, 51(5), 719–736.
  8. Ellermeier, W., & Hellbrück, J. (1998). Is Level Irrelevant in “Irrelevant Speech”? Effects of Loudness, Signal-to-Noise Ratio, and Binaural Unmasking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24(5), 1406–1414.
  9. Schlittmeier, S. J., & Hellbrück, J. (2009). Background Music as Noise Abatement in OpenPlan Offices: A Laboratory Study on Performance Effects and Subjective Preferences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 684–697. http://doi.org/10.1002/acp
  10. Yang, H., Choi, M., & Kang, J. (2010). Laboratory study of the effects of green roof systems on noise reduction at street levels for diffracted sound. 39th International Congress on Noise Control Engineering 2010, INTER-NOISE 2010, 3(February), 1790–1800.
  11. Azkorra, Z., Pérez, G., Coma, J., Cabeza, L. F., Bures, S., Álvaro, J. E., … Urrestarazu, M. (2015). Evaluation of green walls as a passive acoustic insulation system for buildings. Applied Acoustics, 89, 46–56.
  12. Burchett, M., Torpy, F., Brennan, J., & Craig, A. (2010). Greening the Great Indoors for Human Health and Wellbeing. Final Report.

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