Managing the Sounds of Your Office

Businesswoman covering her ears in an officeThe open-office concept has long been praised for the benefits it offers to workers: Transparent communication that can lead to greater creativity and enhanced collaboration.

As with any space where walls tumble down, though, the open-office concept also presents a few challenges, among them the problem of noise that can travel practically unabated from one end of an office floor to the other.

According to a recent study, the drawbacks of an open-office environment may be costing companies more in productivity than previously believed.

The research, conducted by a pair of gentlemen from the University of Sydney’s Center on the Built Environment, indicates that workers struggle maintain productivity when presented with noisy surroundings and very little privacy.

In fact, according to the numbers, almost 50% of workers in open-office environments and just short of 60%who work at stations with partitions cite the lack of privacy from noise as the chief problem with their working worlds.

Which begs the question – how best to take advantage of the open-office benefits while minimizing the threats to productivity?

One suggestion is to be sure to include breakout spaces and/or modest public spaces in any open-office floor plan. At the same time, consider doubling up on work areas, enclosing two or even three office areas together, where employees can be paired in ways that contribute to everyone’s productivity.

There’s also a need for employees to make telephone calls and to engage in conversations that are best kept from the ears of the entire office. And it’s important to provide areas where employees can concentrate on highly complex tasks or projects. Even a single conference room or phone booth that’s fully enclosed can help to serve as a valuable oasis in the open-air workplace.

Companies can also make use of white noise machines that, while noisy in and of themselves, are still less distracting and disruptive than the cacophony of nearby conversation.

And when the time comes to change office spaces altogether, such as when companies expand or move into new office space, negotiate the highest tenant improvement allowance possible. This will allow the company to take cost-effective steps to set aside a few quiet areas in the new office environment.

In the end, finding a healthy mix between open-office spaces and quieter, more secluded areas should have the overall effect of increasing productivity without forcing the entire workforce to wear headphones for most of the day.


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