Excessive noise in the workplace can dramatically affect a workforce, leading to a combination of health problems for staff and a reduction in productivity. It is a misnomer to consider noise to only be a critical problem in a manufacturing and/or industrial environment. It can also be a major problem in any working environment, including offices. You will find some invaluable information on noise in our article Managing the risk of noise exposure.
There is a wonderful article on the BBC website about office noise which tells the story of just how wrong the design of the Frances Crick Institution in London was. “It took years to plan and was hailed as a veritable cathedral of science – with vaulted ceilings, tall glass windows and a vast central atrium. But just a year after the building’s grand opening, it became clear that there was a problem.
“In the ‘collaborative’ open-plan space, the boisterous laughter of colleagues celebrating their PhDs mingled with the sound of hundreds of scientists earnestly discussing their projects – and created an environment where, some occupants complained, they could barely think, let alone concentrate on the next Nobel Prize-winning discovery.”
In an environment where productivity is key to success, both for employees and the company, limiting noise is critical. This article will principally look at the ‘open office’ environment, one you might not immediately associate with excessive noise, but that is because one source of noise on its own may not create a problem, but seven or eight different sources of noise creating sounds at the same time can create what we would call a cacophony of sound or, put another way, a complete racket!
The obvious ‘cure’ for too much sound is earphones, earplugs or headsets but they all come with one major drawback. You can’t hold a conversation with anyone else while wearing them. As a result, reducing noise in the workplace is the only viable option. So, where do we begin? You may find our article How do you measure noise levels? useful reading.
For sure solid flooring, such as ceramic tiling, marble, polished stone, polished or painted concrete and hardwood parquet all have great advantages when it comes to a heavy-traffic environment. These types of flooring are easy to keep clean, require little maintenance, and generally look good after a few years and last a long time.
The problem is, all the above flooring types can cause considerable noise when people walk on them, such as women who wear high heels, leather-soled shoes and the biggest culprit of all, men’s leather-soled shoes with metal ‘segs’ in them. The other main source of noise with solid floors is when anyone moves their chair, and if there are twenty of you in an open office, that’s a lot of chairs!
Carpeting is the best option for an office floor as not only is it quiet to walk on, but it also helps to absorb ambient noise. While carpeting may be more difficult to keep clean, if carpet squares are used, then replacement costs can be reduced by only having to replace small sections as and when needed.
Often just adding sound-absorbing panels to one wall can make a huge difference to office noise. Invariably these are made from foam and while not exactly cheap, once fitted they can last for many years. However, if budgets are tight, then surprisingly, cork is a good material to put on walls and even a thin cork ‘wallpaper’ can substantially reduce noise. This is achieved by the fact that unlike a solid wall, all noise hitting a cork wall does not bounce back into the room and a greater percentage is absorbed by it.
It is also worth remembering that the ceiling is a massive area within an office and applying sound-absorbing material to it will once again achieve very noticeable results.
One of the biggest problems encountered with ‘open-plan’ offices is that with, say, 20 people in the same room, the overall volume of noise will be high. Consequently, in a noisy environment, people tend to talk more loudly, which exacerbates the problem. We also have a habit of being lazy at work and if we can see someone we want to talk to and they are just ten metres away from us, it is easier to shout at them than walk over and talk quietly. However, installing screens and partitions not only eliminates this annoying habit as people can no longer see each other, but also these structures stop sound from travelling across the office.
More to the point, as will become clear as we go through the list of ways to reduce noise in the workspace, using ‘soft’ materials helps to absorb rather than resonate sound. Consequently, if partitions are covered in a soft-textured material, that will further limit the amount of noise that will escape from each individual workstation.
Whether a small or large office space, soft furnishings can make all the difference to the overall noise levels. Chairs should be covered in fabric, especially those used for anyone waiting to be seen. Unless you have acres of window space, it is well worth considering sound-deadening curtains which do pretty much what they say they will do, though ordinary curtains are certainly better than nothing.
This is often overlooked when creating a noise-reduction strategy for the workspace. When you think about it, the closer people are to each other, the less noisy the communication between them is likely to be. Here we are not talking about the distance between individual team members, but the distance between the actual teams. This avoids having to use an internal phone system which, subsequently, reduces the number of phones ringing, and for excessive periods if someone is not at their desk to take a call.
Printers, photocopiers, and fax machines all make a noise, and this can be tiresome for anyone located nearby, especially when someone is doing a massive print run. If a small room cannot be dedicated to such equipment, make sure that you at least create some form of a booth with sound-absorbing materials surrounding the equipment. The same should apply to any switchboard, especially if the receptionist is fielding calls for twenty-or-so staff and is likely to be talking to clients or customers virtually all day long.
It may seem like a contradiction in terms to suggest installing a machine which makes noise in an environment where you want to reduce noise, but white noise is very effective at ‘drowning out’ other annoying background noises. More to the point, the relaxing and calming sounds a white noise machine produces help to de-stress staff and increase productivity. The noise also helps people to talk more quietly and generally reduce the noise they make themselves so that the white noise can be more easily heard.
Yes, it’s true, plants in an office can help to absorb and reduce sound. Many of you may have seen plants in offices and thought they were there purely for aesthetic reasons, but you would only be partly right. Yes, plants make an office space appear more friendly and welcoming, but their real purpose is to help dull the noise of the workspace.
The sound of one keyboard tapping away in an office isn’t the end of the world. However, today, keyboards are no longer the sole domain of secretaries, no. Instead, virtually anyone who works in an office will use a keyboard as they will need it to access or research for information using the office computer system. Consequently, if you multiply the sound of one keyboard by 20, you can begin to get a better picture of the problem. Soft-touch keyboards almost eliminate all typing-generated noise. Depending on what employees need access to the company computer system for, it may also be worth considering using monitors with a touchscreen facility to eliminate the need for a keyboard.
According to a 2015 survey, when it came to the most annoying noises in an office, conversations were rated the most disturbing, closely followed by coughing, sneezing and sniffing, loud phone voices, ringing phones and whistling. You know who they are and they know who they are – so have a quiet word in the ear of the office chatterbox(es) and ask them to keep the conversations just about work.
As an employer, there are numerous legislations that must be adhered to by your business and staff, in particular those which relate to Health and Safety at work. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 is, consequently, essential reading.
Here at Commodious, we specialise in providing online courses on Health, Safety and Compliance. If you would like to learn more about Noise Awareness, explicitly designed for managers and senior company employees, you can check out the training course here.