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Office noise: Fixing the biggest productivity killer in coworking

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. 

This guide includes: 

The key culprits behind bad workplace acoustics

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.   

Step 1: Creating dedicated quiet spaces & dedicated social spaces

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: 

    • Offer quiet shared space: One of the best ways to solve for office noise is to create quiet shared spaces with private booths and desks. At Hana, we carve out sections of our coworking space to do just this, offering people the ability to duck away into quiet zones with a variety of places for focused work.

      Harvard Business Review points out “that workers lost as much as 86 minutes per day due to noise distractions” — hence why it’s critical to offer spaces away from any noise, social activity, or distraction. Dedicated quiet areas are particularly helpful for people when they need a change of scenery or some quiet time to focus.

    • Invest in focus rooms: At any coworking space, private phone rooms are one of the most popular places to work for long periods of time, in part because they offer a privacy and quiet. But the high demand for these spaces mean they’re often in short supply.

      As we designed Hana, we also found that people thought these spaces were too small — which makes sense since they’re designed for short phone calls and not long solo work sessions.

      To solve this, we focused on offering a large number of focus rooms, which are substantially larger than a typical private phone room.

    • Carve out social spaces: As important as it is to have access to quiet space, it’s also helpful to create social areas where people can connect, collaborate and socialize. Communal social spaces also give people a dedicated place to talk and socialize, which helps keep distractions to a minimum in the actual workplace.

      At Hana, we took the idea of dedicated social spaces to heart and created a central hub with café seating, banquettes and open lounges — plus a café and grab-n-go market — for people to relax, work over lunch and socialize with colleagues and peers. 

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.

Step 2: Incorporating acoustic baffling & sound absorbing materials

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: 

    • Prioritize acoustic baffling: Acoustic baffling is a fancy way to describe design flourishes that help reduce the transfer of sound. In the workplace, drop ceilings and acoustic baffles like soft-surface wall ornaments are two common methods to help absorb and reduce ambient noise.

      At Hana, we carefully installed drop-ceiling acoustic baffling around our workspaces to help soak up ambient noise. One example includes our private booth seating in our quiet shared spaces where we installed sound dampening lamps, which include noise suppressing fabric, to reduce the transfer of conversational noise. 
    • Focus on acoustic attenuation: If you can imagine a concrete room with walls and hard-cut, right-angled corners, you’re thinking of a place incredibly ill-suited to dampening ambient noise. 

      The best solution includes focusing on acoustic attenuation, which essentially means using soft materials on surfaces and corners and limit sound transfer. Little things like canvased artwork or incorporating drop-ceilings that help reduce the number of right angles in a given space are great ways to help reduce the transfer of ambient noise. This helps reduce ambient noise — and makes each space look unique.   

    • Bring more plants into the workspace: Plants in the office offer more than an aesthetic break and some nice greenery — they can also help break up ambient noise. “Similar to planting trees along a loud highway, plants boast sound absorbing capabilities that can work just as effectively in an indoor environment as an outdoor setting,” the Harvard Business Review says.

      What’s more, a study from the University of Exeter found that plants can also increase productivity by up to 15%, and another study from the New University of Technology Sydney found they can reduce tension and anxiety by as much as 37%.

      At Hana, we focused on bringing plants into our social areas and workspaces to help reduce ambient noise — and make the spaces themselves look better. 

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.   

Step 3: Using sound-masking technology

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. 

But is all this effort worth it?

In short, yes. 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. 

The bottom line

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.

Oct 10 2019

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