By Ben Hancock, Managing Director, Oscar Acoustics
As staff gradually return to offices, employers are under increasing pressure to create safe and inviting workspaces. Businesses will need to find a balance between the demands of the organisation and the needs of employees to help restore workplace culture, productivity levels and wellbeing. Having spent months at home, employees’ expectations of what an office environment should look, sound, and feel like have changed. Is your workplace ready?
With safety being a number one priority, creating an effective post-Covid office space requires more than just social distancing measures. Companies will need to create spaces where collaborative working can take place with ease, and where much-missed social interaction can be safely reintroduced. To be sure productivity levels return to normal, employers must ensure that unnecessary distractions are removed, and effective noise control measures will play a huge part in achieving that goal.
Post-Covid changes to the workplace
It’s important to consider the physical changes coming into effect in the workplace, and ask: how will this impact the sound levels in a room? One potential problem is the increasing number of hard surfaces being introduced, reflecting sound rather than absorbing it. The likelihood is that speech intelligibility will be affected as a result.
With fewer companies willing to commit to contractual offices, spaces must become easily adaptable, changing with the ebb and flow of different employee needs according to each company. Moveable furniture that can be easily rearranged, cubicle style offices and modular pods within open-plan spaces will allow for greater flexibility, as hybrid working models will demand. Equally, the introduction of ‘sneeze screens’ and touchless surfaces will soon be the norm, along with tactile free walkways. But for these methods to be effective, the impact of noise must be addressed, or problems will arise over time.
Without adequate acoustic treatment, a workspace can quickly turn into a noisy and stressful environment, compromising employee comfort and undoing all the benefits of expensive office revamps. Finding solutions that allow colleagues to communicate easily without the need to raise their voice will be essential, not to mention the obvious hygiene benefits that help prevent the potential transmission of any would-be viruses.
Sound absorption is vital for workplace success
Studies have highlighted the impact excessive noise can have on physical and psychological health. Noise is considered to be a major contributor to poor productivity at work, and poor office acoustics can also lead to employees taking more sick days, which has a serious knock-on effect on business efficiency.
Our research of UK employees found that nearly half (44%) have difficulty concentrating in a noisy workspace. Half of the respondents also agreed that noise levels were central to their productivity. Whilst noise-cancelling headphones go part of the way to solving the problem, they prevent the easy flow of communication between teams and often fall short within collaborative environments. Pre-pandemic, a study by Savills found that 37% of workers needed quiet space for focussed work. With the return to the workplace, it is highly likely that this feeling will only become exacerbated.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the noise in question does not have to be overwhelmingly loud. Experts have calculated levels start to be dangerous from just 65 dB, about the volume of regular conversation, which is easily achieved in offices and public social spaces. Screened-off work stations could well tip noise levels into the danger zone as staff raise their voices to be heard.
Sound advice for flexible workspaces
With office reconfiguration currently such a key focus, now is the time to give the acoustic design the attention it deserves. Fortunately, there is a range of architectural acoustic finishes for ceilings and walls, such as sprays or plasters, to help designers create calm and inviting spaces that ensure employees don’t struggle to hear or be heard. These acoustic treatments are designed to offer immediate relief from reverberant sound. Acoustic sprays can be applied, often as a single process, to nearly any surface or substrate, and are incredibly effective because they absorb sound, rather than reflect it.
Acoustic sprays are popular with interior designers and architects because there is no design compromise. Quality sprays allow for complete flexibility with Cat A and Cat B configuration, and have important environmental benefits too. High-quality sprays made of recycled, natural plant-based fibres and specialist water-based adhesives can contribute towards many sustainable designs and health certification systems including BREEAM, SKA, Living Building Challenge. The use of these products can add up to 17 points towards the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating of a project.
Fire safety should also be a top priority when considering the right acoustic solution and acoustic sprays that go above and beyond the Approved Document B fire requirement will give employers additional peace of mind.
Wellness and duty of care
It’s clear from the research that environments supporting a healthy mental state can significantly improve employees’ happiness at work and increase productivity. But the full implications of noisy offices are still relatively unknown or rarely acted upon by many employers. Companies need to recognise the impact noise can have on the health of their workforce, and from a business perspective, how it could also impact their bottom line. In a landscape where businesses need to be operating at a higher efficiency within increasingly competitive markets, understanding the importance of an effective acoustic solution could pay dividends in the near future and beyond.
With the workforce beginning to return, employers have a legal obligation to protect their workers. Progress is being made, but education around the health impacts of excessive noise and poor acoustics in the workplace needs to be improved. Facing up to the issue is an important first step. It’s time to monitor, find solutions and turn down the noise in the post-Covid office landscape.