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How to solve the problem of a noisy office

Acoustic solutions to overcome noisy work conversations

In an office, noise can come from all kinds of sources:

  • Air conditioning
  • Printers
  • Mobile and office phones, and in particular
  • Colleagues’ conversations.

In fact, many studies show that the most destructive sound in an office is other people’s conversations. This is because noisy environments only worsen over time, as people speak louder as it gets noisier around them (a process known as the Lombard effect). The team at Avenue have written extensively on the Lombard effect over the last 12 months.

It’s clear that, while conversations in the office are important, too much conversational noise can have a detrimental effect. So what can be done about excessive office noise?

What happens when workers experience too much noise?

Extensive studies have shown that noise exposure arouses the nervous system, causing rising blood pressure and the release of stress hormones. Over time, these automatic responses can stress the cardiovascular system and give rise to negative outcomes such as anger and exhaustion. Not the best conditions for workers to deliver high performance in an office environment!

That’s why, without effective office noise control solutions, the negative impacts of day-to-day noise in many office environments can be significant.

Why is conversational noise in an office so distracting?

First, there’s the nature of conversational noise itself. It fluctuates, which is more annoying than constant noise.

Then, there’s the fact that as humans, we can only focus on a certain number of conversations at one time – research indicates 1.6 conversations at once. This means that, if you’re hearing somebody else’s conversation, you’re using up 1 of your 1.6 conversation capacity. Even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop it – after all, your ears have no lids! And that means you’ve just 0.6 left to listen to your own inner voice.

A colorful and eye-catching cover image for an infographic showcasing the top 10 ways to reduce noise in an open plan office, providing practical tips and strategies to create a more comfortable and productive work environment for employees.
Download The Top 10 Ways to Reduce Noise in Your Open-Plan Office infographic.

Next, the noise level of the work that is supposed to happen in offices today is an issue. In some open-plan offices, noise ranges from 60 to 65 decibels. That may seem minor compared to a busy factory, but it can make cognitively demanding work difficult.

While 70 decibels may be acceptable for simple office work, 55 decibels are the requirement for intellectual work, which is characterised by high complexity and demanding creative thinking, decision-making, problem solving, and communicating effectively.

In fact, the recommended noise level for intellectual work – whether participating in discussions and meetings or working solo – is the same limit on noise as for a doctor performing surgery.

Open plan offices commonly feature a noise level of 60-65 decibels. That’s simply too loud for effective concentration, and can also impede useful collaboration by causing speech interference.

The sound level of speech – if people talk to one another in normal tones without raising their voices at about one metre – is around 60 decibels. This means that any other noise within that same range (such as someone else talking nearby) can cause speech interference, so that not all the words may be fully heard. A sentence may be understood because of cortical processing. However, this is an active process that may cause a reaction leading to adverse effects from chronic noise exposure over the long term.

The upshot of all this? In noisy office environments with poor acoustics, workers can just as easily get stressed by trying to hear others as by trying not to hear others. That’s a lose/lose proposition. Let’s look at solutions to excessive office noise.

The solution to a noisy office

Work environments must be designed both for appearance and to ensure a positive experience for all the senses, especially hearing. Good acoustics can make office environments more productive.

Solving noise in workplaces can be challenging. Four walls and a door don’t necessarily make for good acoustics because sound, like water, can spread through the smallest gap.

The solution is to create a variety of workplace environments, each designed with the people using the space, and the sound needed for the task, firmly in mind.

The good news is that sound can be sealed, absorbed, or masked within any environment. Each method has advantages and disadvantages that should be carefully weighed by experts. Controlling sound within acceptable levels of tolerance has become a design imperative, and an important metric for the overall effectiveness of an office space.

The team at Avenue Interior Systems will provide you with the best acoustic treatment options for your office. Contact the team today on 1300 827 177.