The noise of modernity

When you think about noise in the workplace, an image of a factory worker, donning some unsightly earmuffs and surrounded by churning machines is usually conjured. But this stereotype is rapidly changing.

Spurred on by a growing body of evidence and media attention, the bane of noise is fast becoming as much a consideration for brick and mortar offices as it is for the manufacturing industry, and it’s about time we all listen up.

Rewind seven years to 2011 and Channel 4 presenter and architecture critic, Tom Dyckhoff, is strapping on an Electroencephalography (EEG) cap and sitting down to do what so many of us do every day – work in an office. The experiment, part of the programme The Secret Life Of Buildings, used the EEG cap, which measures electrical activity in the brain, to try and determine just how the brain works in an office environment.

The office was your typical modern office – an open, collaborative space with a distinct lack of worker segregation. Dyckhoff was given the task to write a news article for immediate submission.

The challenge wasn’t in the task itself, but in negotiating the noise generated by surrounding workers going about their day-to-day tasks such as answering phones, writing emails and conversing.

The experiment posed the question: just how distracting are daily office noises? The results were damning. When exposed to nearby conversations and noises from workers, “intense bursts of distraction” were detected in Dychoff’s brain. The presenter’s account of the experience wasn’t altogether flattering, either: “I don’t think I could ever ever work in an open- plan office again,” he lamented.

Conversations are the most distracting noise, says a study. Photograph: iStock/bowdenimages

This is no surprise, really. Studies routinely show us that open-plan offices are a bad idea, with the lion’s share of the blame attributed to exposure to nearby conversations.

One particular study, by Techradar, one of the largest UK-based technology news and reviews site, found that productivity can plummet by 66 per cent when exposed to just one nearby conversation. The worst part is that conversations are the most distracting noise, owing to their emotional content. The brain finds it particularly hard to not cling to the words of colleagues.

Julian Treasure, head of The Sound Agency, has made his life’s work studying this effect and what we can do about it in commercial spaces. His account adds weight to the ‘conversation is the killer’ argument. “There is plenty of research that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations”, says Treasure. “We have bandwidth for roughly 1.6 human conversations. So, if you’re hearing somebody’s conversation, then that’s taking up 1 of your 1.6. Even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop it: You have no earlids. And that means you’ve just 0.6 left to listen to your own inner voice.”

All this distraction can seriously hurt the hip pockets of companies and organisations. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that the annual cost to Europe from excessive noise levels is £30 billion. This includes “lost working days, healthcare costs and reduced productivity”.

However, besides lost productivity, there are more insidious effects of excessive office noise and it is often employees’ wellbeing, health and happiness that are in the crosshairs.

Prolonged exposure to certain noises triggers spikes in blood pressure and heart rate. Photograph: iStock / People Images

Science shows us that prolonged exposure to certain noises triggers spikes in blood pressure and heart rate – typical physiologic stress responses in our bodies. Research has also shown that intermittent exposure to loud noises can lead to higher long-term stress hormone levels and hypertension. Even sounds that office workers are exposed to – phone rings, conversations – affect the rhythm and rate of our hearts.

These physiological effects have a flow-on effect for our energy levels. As psychology Professor Arline Bronzaft, who specialises on noise studies, explains, “as your pulse rate and blood pressure increase, your adrenaline surges; anything that puts added stress on the nervous system eventually depletes your energy”.

Try and tune out from the noise and you can make matters worse. Bronzaft says that as you actively block out noise, “you have to work harder to complete tasks because you’re actively working to try to ignore the sound”. This is all tiring and stressful work and paints a dire portrait of the beleaguered office worker.

Open: to everything

According to estimates, 70 per cent of offices are now open-plan. These spaces are quite easy to typify – open and collaborative, eschewing divisions between workers that act as natural acoustic barriers, and often comprised of sleek and easy-to-clean surfaces, which reflect sound and compound environmental noises. In short, modern offices are noisy.

And the numbers don’t lie. The German Association of Engineers has set 55 decibels as the optimal noise level for what it terms “mainly intellectual work”. Modern open-plan offices hover around 60-65 decibels. While this isn’t at the level of potential hearing loss – it is now indisputable that these levels put extra strain on workers’ energy and stress levels.

It has been seven years since Dyckhoff’s experiment, but little has changed in the world of office architecture. In fact, one thing is crystal clear – open-plan offices aren’t going anywhere soon. It is time that we listened to the noise made by experts. This is for the health, happiness and productivity of workers.

Techradar study: here

Jeremy Luscombe is marketing executive at Resonics

More info on acoustics at: resonics.co.uk