For better or worse (and mainly, worse), bad workplace acoustics are one of the most common complaints in offices today. Need proof? The Harvard Business Review put together a cheat sheet on how to survive in a noisy office.
In a recent survey of 1,000+ U.S. office workers, we found that “quiet spaces” are one the most in-demand workplace perks. And that demand grows even stronger among people who work in modern open office settings — and coworking spaces.
Here’s the good news: There are ways to fix the dreaded problem of bad workplace acoustics that don’t involve wearing headphones to block out your coworkers’ conversations. Below, we’ll cover why office noise is such a problem and some of the most effective solution we discovered, how we implemented them and how others might do the same.
When it comes to bad acoustics in the workplace, there are two key culprits: open-plan offices and industrial design, which tends to favor materials like glass, concrete and metal — all of which are terrible at dampening ambient noise.
“Most architects or designers aren’t paying attention to the damaging potential of environmental noise,” the acoustic expert Julian Treasure tells Interior Design.
But there are solutions. “There are certain properties of sound — the RAT (reflect, absorb, transmit) of acoustics and the ABCs (absorb, block, cover) of noise control — that should help architects pick the right surfaces and coverings to achieve a pitch-perfect space,” Treasure says.
Here’s the three steps we followed to put that cut down on office noise and build a more productive workspace.
One of the easier things to do to manage noise in coworking settings is to offer separate spaces for social activities and quiet heads-down work. Put simply, you want to make an open office a little bit less open and offer a variety of spaces for private, focused work, group get-togethers and social mixers.
Across most coworking spaces, you’ll find separate areas for shared workspaces and dedicated desks — plus, phone rooms and meeting spots. But the shared workspaces are often social, the dedicated desks bustling and the ever-popular private phone rooms … well, they’re perpetually occupied.
Knowing that, we identified a few ways to offer people quiet when they need it — and community when they want it:
The Key Takeaway
Dedicated spots designed for specific uses can help keep activities where they belong: Conversations and mingling in a dedicated social space and focused work in dedicated quiet areas. This intentional approach to workspace design helps keep noise irritation to a minimum and productivity at its peak.
In most open office environments (and especially coworking places), you’ll find a dearth of soft materials and an abundance of hard surfaces. The problem is these hard materials — think glass, concrete and hard-wood flooring — just don’t absorb sound very well.
That’s why softer materials, like carpet, along with partitions to block sound can make a big difference. Moreover, people value the privacy and quiet simple things like desk partitions offer. In our survey, 67% of respondents to our survey reported that barriers to block noise like desk partitions are important. Despite this, only 16% said they have access to them.
While traditional partitions and ceiling tiles aren’t always attractive, there are ways to dampen noise in tasteful and design-forward ways if you have the budget for it. Here are a few solutions we pursued when designing Hana:
The Key Takeaway
Hard surfaces can cause sound to fly around a workspace, making already loud environments even noisier. Incorporating soft surfaces — think carpets, rugs, canvas artwork, plants and lamps — and installing simple acoustic baffling go a long way making offices quieter and more productive.
There are few things more frustrating — or distracting — in the office than overhearing other people’s conversations.
One way to drown out ambient conversational noise? Sound-masking technology. Sound masking technology isn’t new — you have probably seen colleagues with a white noise machine in their office or cubicle before. But it’s something that, when used strategically, can also be incredibly effective in mitigating noise issues in the workplace.
At Hana, we incorporate sound masking technology, like white noise and curated soundscapes, to reduce ambient and conversational noise. From our shared workspaces to our meeting rooms and office suites, you’ll notice an almost imperceptible level of background noise designed to help improve the acoustics of each space.
Adding more “noise” to cover up noise might sound counterintuitive, but it’s an effective way to create a quieter workspace. According to Harvard Business Review, speakers installed in the ceiling, for example, can be used to create noise-canceling bubbles that “allows colleagues working within feet of each other to carry on simultaneous phone or in-person conversations” without distracting others.
Is all this effort worth it? In short, absolutely. According to the Harvard Business Review, one study from Herman Miller “showed that sound masking can increase productivity by up to 38%, reduce stress by up to 27%, and increase job satisfaction by up to 174%.”
The Key Takeaway
Crinkling granola bar wrappers, crunchy celery sticks and hushed or loud phone conversations can all contribute to decreased productivity and unhappiness in shared workspaces. Simple sound-masking techniques — like incorporating white and pink noise — can make all the difference.
Similar to poor lighting or bad ergonomics, a noisy office can sabotage your ability to be productive at work. This problem is particularly acute in coworking spaces where open office layouts and industrial design lead to excess noise pollution from a wide range of sources — ringing phones, constant typing, crunchy foods and packaging, nearby conversations and loud printers all contribute to increased distraction.
At Hana, we’re building premium flexible office spaces to give you everything you need to work your way. Learn more today.
As the Content Strategist at Hana, my job involves digging deep into the present and future of flexible workspaces and coworking. When I'm not working my way through industry trends, you can find me working my way through a book or looking for the perfect taco stand in Austin, Texas.