Open plan remains the dominant office layout in the UK, despite evidence that face-to-face collaboration drops, alongside anecdotal complaints about the ability to concentrate in such spaces. One of the key culprits in causing unhappiness in open-plan spaces is noise – and, according to an OnOffice round table of office design experts hosted by furniture brand Bisley, it isn’t just volume that is the issue in most spaces.
From left: Katherine Sheridan, Peter Nagle, Trudy Martin, Peter Attwood, Nigel Oseland
“My pet hate is this open-plan office assumption that everyone needs to interact and collaborate in the same space. It’s the different activity that’s distracting – and it’s possible to create a low-noise environment with ‘spaces to be loud’, rather than the opposite that’s so common,” says Nigel Oseland, workplace strategist and environmental psychologist. One way to achieve it is through visual cues, Oseland suggests – as in a library, where there’s an expectation of behavour.
However, though people may wish for silence when they’re in a noisy office, it is often not conducive to productive spaces, as our mind is subconsciously switched on for rounds, seeing them as signals of danger, Peter Attwood, managing director of Acoustic Associates, adds. Sound that distracts us is more about what we become habituated to, he says, a point backed up by a rising interested in using white and pink noise in office design.
“We tend to recommend a volume level of around 30dBa, but it’s intelligibility that’s important, whether you can hear the person opposite and not the person on the other side of the room.” says Katherine Sheridan, associate interior designer at workplace strategist and architecture firm BDG.
For designers, that is a factor they can exercise some control over, and is also one of the key reasons for unhappiness in office spaces. “Sometimes people can feel like victims of noise at work,” says Attwood, “particularly when there is no agency to change their situation.” He points out that this is the type of issue that can often impact younger people more, in part because people higher frequencies as they age and are therefore less able to hear distracting sounds in the office.
Equally, belong ot lower stages of hierarchy often means less choice over the work environment – which in part could explain the success of co-working spaces and the sense of choice, suggests Trudy Martin, Bisley brand ambassador. Peter Nagle, contracts director at BW Workplace, points to The Office Group in King’s Cross as an example of somehwere with defined spaces for concentration, separate to the areas for meeting and collaboration.
In the more traditional office, however, there are still ways tof improving the impact of noise. “Furniture is an underrated characteristic in offices – it can break up and diffuse sound, whether it’s wood, storage space or a felt-covered screen,” says Attwood. And often, the cost of smaller interventions can be minimal compared to the impact of poor acoustics, adds BDG’s Sheridan.
Ultimately, choice and a sense of agency is what can make people feel most comfortable in their office – something designers can help to achieve through intelligent interventions such as furniture to divide spaces and visual indicytors of quiter and louder zones.
Dividing open-plan offices with screens or furniture is one way of reducing the impact of noise and improving employee concentration, finds this expert panel.