A Not-So-Quiet Little Problem: Noise!

Big open spaces with lots of glass can result in a noisy workplace that's bad for productivity and morale. A warning sign that you have a problem: Everyone's wearing headphones.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017
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The Swig Co. is a San Francisco real-estate firm that owns and manages 9 million square feet of office space on both coasts, much of it in the white-hot Bay Area market, where technology companies compete to lease trendy offices.

One problem: Swig's own offices weren't exactly cutting-edge.

For 20 years, the company headquarters occupied offices in a historic brick building that Swig owns in San Francisco's financial district. The company often worked with clients who sought airy, modern open offices, but its own space was "extremely traditional," complete with wood paneling in keeping with the style of the 1891 building, says Jay Scholten, the company's vice president for asset management.

By 2015, company leaders had decided it was time to move -- and they wanted a modern, open design that would impress clients.

"At least in San Francisco, it seemed to make sense . . . to change the environment . . . to show our relevancy," says Scholten, who led the upgrade project. "We wanted to show, using our own office, how [clients] might address issues."

The company moved into nearby space in the same building, keeping some private offices but generally adopting an open design with lots of glass and open space. Client reactions were encouraging, Scholten says. The new offices "seemed to resonate with tech companies and startups."

Swig's staff also liked the new office -- at first.

Not long after the move, Swig executives discovered the dark side of open-office designs: Big rooms full of workers tend to be noisy, with many conversations going on that workers find hard to ignore, hurting productivity.

From the start, Scholten says, "that was one of our major concerns -- how do we keep from being distracted?"

Scholten and his colleagues also discovered that open offices can be too quiet, so that workers lack what experts call "speech privacy" -- the ability to have a confidential chat in person or on the phone without everyone in the office following along.

Many organizations do exactly what Swig did, modernizing their offices and later discovering the noise problems, says Mara Baum, a San Francisco architect with the design firm Hok. Baum was not involved in the Swig project, but as a leader of her firm's health-and-wellness design practice, she has seen the problem before. She considers noise, along with air quality and temperature, a factor that can determine if an office is healthy.

For companies moving from traditional office design, with workers accustomed to private offices, adjusting to an open office "can be a real shock . . . when an organization plunks people down without any change management or communication" about what to expect, Baum says.

The problem, she and others note, isn't just the size of the room. Many companies favor sleek designs with lots of glass, polished stone or other hard surfaces that reflect sound waves, Baum says. "You can have a beautiful space that's acoustically terrible," she says.

"Architects are asked to design spaces that look gorgeous -- but are acoustically miserable," agrees Brian Atkinson, client development manager of Acoustics by Design Inc., an acoustical engineering and consulting company in Grand Rapids, Mich. By the time his firm gets called in to help, often six months after the office is remodeled, "everyone is miserable -- they're all wearing headphones" to block noise, he says.

Collaboration or Cacophony?

Open offices have gained popularity as a way to foster a collaborative environment and also save money. But several researchers have concluded that noise and speech-privacy problems can reduce worker productivity and job satisfaction.

In one often-cited 2013 study, researchers at the University of Sydney, Australia concluded that open offices come with a trade-off: You may create a collaborative environment, but "open-plan layouts are widely acknowledged to be more disruptive due to uncontrollable noise," they wrote. After analyzing survey responses from more than 25,000 workers, the researchers concluded that the "benefits of enhanced ease of interaction . . . were smaller than the penalties" that come with open offices.

A separate analysis of the survey results found nearly 80 percent of workers in open offices cited noise or lack of speech privacy as a reason for being dissatisfied with their workspace.

The research firm Kelton found most workers think open offices hurt their productivity, according to a 2014 report published by Cornerstone on Demand, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based talent-management software provider. The survey of more than 2,000 workers found 37 percent believe an enclosed office is the most productive office layout, while only 19 percent thought an open office was best. Results were similar for millennial, baby boomer and Gen-X workers.

Other researchers have documented ways that noise and distractions create stress for workers in open offices. Even adding shelves and bookcases to give workers more privacy doesn't help, according to researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and North Carolina State University in a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

"Despite perceived privacy, irrelevant speech contributes to mental workload, poor performance, stress and fatigue," they wrote.

Finding Answers

There are ways to fix office-noise problems, say architects and acoustical engineers, though few of the solutions are cheap. It's as simple as A, B, C -- absorb, block or cover the noise.

Acoustical ceiling tiles, floor coverings or panels made of wood, foam or cloth can absorb sound, while interior walls can block it.

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Covering office noise involves a new tool: technology that masks it with ambient sound, reducing distractions and also creating more speech privacy, so workers can have confidential conversations at their desks.

This was the solution that Swig executives chose. They invested in a sound-masking system from Boston-based Cambridge Sound Management. The system uses inconspicuous speakers to fill an office with a quiet noise engineered to mask the sound of voices. Though barely detectable, the sound makes distant voices unintelligible, says David Sholkovitz, Cambridge's vice president of marketing. That prevents workers from being distracted by a conversation on the other side of the room, he says.

Sholkovitz says the cost of such a system ranges from $1 to $2 per square foot, not including installation, which is typically performed by a local vendor.

The principle behind sound masking is that the human brain instinctively focuses on conversations nearby, making it hard for workers to tune out those distractions, even if they try hard not to eavesdrop. But if the speech is rendered unintelligible by a masking noise, workers can more easily focus on their work instead.

Swig is happy with the results.

"It's really been a home run," Scholten says. On rare occasions, the sound-masking system can block voices workers want to hear, but generally it does its job unobtrusively, he says. "I'd say 80 percent of our employees don't even know we have it," Scholten says.

Swig also took other steps, such as adding small rooms in which workers can have private meetings or conduct phone calls.

Experts note that adding private spaces is the most common approach to fixing an open-office noise problem. Baum says her first instinct to fix a noisy office is to "create a variety of small rooms." Now that architects recognize the drawbacks of an open office, she says, "we understand the value of those."

The office-furniture-maker Steelcase has taken this idea a step further with its "Quiet Spaces" project, aimed at creating islands of privacy that can be installed in a large open office. The company collaborated with Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, to design five distinct enclosures that can be installed for different uses and different types of people. 

Experts say there's no single answer that will fit any office. Most will require combining the three elements of acoustical controls -- absorb, block and cover.

"It's futile to attempt a cookie-cutter solution for every open-plan office," write researchers from Herman Miller, the office-furniture maker, in a paper titled It's a Matter of Balance: New Understandings in Open Plan Acoustics.

Several experts note that the best point to stop noise problems is at the beginning, when a new or upgraded office is designed.

"I have a dream: Someday, people are going to think about the way a room sounds" before it's too late, Atkinson says.


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