Sounds Good: The acoustically balanced workspace of the future

Ben Hancock, Oscar Acoustics

Before the COVID-19 pandemic millions of us lived the nine-to-five lifestyle working in an office. Now, according to the Office for National Statistics, homeworking is the new normal for around half of British workers.

In the early-days of lockdown numerous bullish commentators prophesised the end of the office, yet recent media stories look more nuanced.

People are tired of endless Zoom calls, the difficulties remote working poses for collaboration on tasks, and the wider margin for misinterpretation through reliance on email or chat. They’re longing for unstructured, face-to-face conversation (aka gossip), baking competitions, social events and a change of scenery.

That said they’re not looking forward to lengthy commutes on crowded public transport, or having difficulty concentrating due to noisy office space. Its clear offices are going to be different post-COVID. For most businesses, their employees are keen for a blended arrangement with time at home and in the office.

Many firms are expecting to start welcoming office workers back in September as schools open up, freeing parents from child care, but they will be returning to a very different workspace.  For example, people can expect temperature checks, internal one-way systems and limits on numbers in lifts. Internal spaces are also being reconfigured with desk numbers being reduced and screened off.

Different scenario, same solution
While the focus has generally been on other aspects of office design, the acoustics are frequently overlooked. While the reasons for acoustic dampening maybe different post-COVID-19, it’s still needed.

Before the lockdown a consistent complaint amongst workers was how open plan office design and close proximity of colleagues had a negative impact on maintaining concentration.

Yet a sea change has occurred in space planning. Much bigger rooms are required to ensure social distancing protocol is maintained, simultaneous to ensuring the daily business needs of the occupants can be delivered without disruption.

If office rooms are large, they may become echoey, impacting on whether people can hear what’s going on, so acoustic solutions are essential.

Sound affects
Excessive noise levels have other negative impacts too, making people feel stressed, less helpful and less productive. Over time working in an office with poor acoustics can harm a person’s quality of life, health and social behaviour. The English Chief Medical Officer said that noise was second only to air pollution in terms of damage to health.

There are immediate productivity challenges caused by too much noise, when we surveyed 2,000 UK workers we found that half have difficulty concentrating and around a fifth are working early or late due to noise levels. Six out of ten workers said their workplaces were too noisy.

High noise levels led to frayed relationships, with a quarter snapping at colleagues and a fifth letting rip at their boss (one in seven millennials had even resorted to physical violence!).

It’s clear something needs to be done as we adapt to a reimagined, redesigned workspace.

Levelling equilibrium
As offices are reconfigured, greater thought needs to be paid to sound levels, particularly as there’s likely to be an increase in hard, easy-to-clean materials such as glass, porcelain and metals.

Workplaces post-COVID look set to be made up of meeting and collaboration areas along with places for people to answer emails etc. While most tasks involving concentration look set to be done at home there still needs to be areas for focused work as not everyone can work where they live.

This makes investment in quality acoustic control all the more important, especially if the plan is to remove large banks of desks.

This is a great opportunity for employers to stop a hidden health crisis and ramp up productivity by focusing on acoustic design.