Open plan office noise is stifling productivity

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Open plan office noise can be reduced through the implementation of solutions like Lotus' operable wall

The ongoing development of the open plan office space brings with it a set of challenges not previously faced by employees in the early 1950s when the trend of the office-scape first surfaced. Fast-forward nearly 70 years to 2019, and the layout of the open plan office spaces, originally believed to increase productivity, creativity and communication amongst employees has seen new challenges arise, including noise and distractions affecting productivity and employee interactions. Dr Kate Hartigan from Lotus Folding Walls and Doors shares effective work space design solutions to create a productive and engaging office environment.

The 2019 Sony Sound Report reveals 80 percent of Australians encounter unwanted noise in the workplace. A third of respondents report colleague laughter as the most distracting factor, while 32 percent say it is unanswered phone calls. Linked to the emotional part of our brain, noise distractions can affect people in a variety of ways with studies showing it takes as long as 20 minutes to fully regain concentration on tasks. The report also shows that 44 percent of employees report to be left irritable or annoyed by the distraction, and 31 percent state that it contributes to their daily stress.

To combat the distractions, 56 percent of employees try to rectify the situation by simply ignoring the noise, a quarter use headphones to cover the noise, and 26 percent move to a different space altogether. But these aren’t long-term solutions.

With open plan offices proving ineffective as the one-size-fits-all approach solution they were predicted to be, organisations are turning their attention to architectural interior designers and experts to design agile, activity based workspaces with flexible real estate that assists with reducing stress, increasing productivity and inspiring creativity.

“Agility in furnishing systems that allow for instant reconfiguration is becoming more common,” says Hartigan.

“Utilising innovative building materials and products that work to achieve better acoustic comfort can make a significant difference to people’s performance.

“The problem with many current open plan offices is they feature hard reflective surfaces that bring with them moderate to high reverberation issues when the space is full of disruptive noise components.”

As a result, sound control is increasingly becoming a major consideration in office design. Acoustics are an intrinsic element of the overall design of a floorplan, preserving the look and feel while optimising acoustic comfort. Sound-absorbing materials and sound separating movable walls, like Lotus Folding Walls and Doors, specialised perforated ceiling panels, free-standing screens and the use of sound-absorbing shapes and soft absorption furniture, placed as close as possible to the noise source, are creative ways acoustic professionals are manipulating sound in built environments.

When designing an office with acoustic performance in mind, use and functionality of the rooms should dictate the layout. Place rooms designed primarily for speech, such as meeting and conference rooms where privacy is important strategically away from noisy teams like sales, marketing or customer service who are on the phone a lot. Quiet rooms should be accessible and strictly for quiet activities to ensure those employees needing to concentrate have comfortable places to access when needed.

“In a work space, it makes good sense to create easily modifiable spaces adaptable to the various needs of employees and the business, whether it’s quiet focused work, ad-hoc team collaborations, large-scale events or client workshops. This allows employees to be fully agile and adapt to the activities of the moment with the best spaces to suit the work at hand. With this in mind, designing a workplace with acoustics at its core and that strives for an optimum sound level is fundamentally important,” says Hartigan.

The result of this forward-thinking, workspace design enables people to thrive, creating more comfortable, multi-use spaces that reduce stress amongst employees, maximising productivity and enabling greater levels of performance.

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Image: Lotus operable wall in motion.

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