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Working WellChattering Colleagues or Sounds of Silence: Which Is Golden for the Workplace?

Does the definition of well-being extend to how audio-friendly your office environment is? Let’s explore.
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Everyone in the wellness space should know by now it has grown to be more inclusive to different types of well-being. We can apparently add “acoustic” well-being to this list?

My dad is an architect, mostly because Mike Brady was one on “The Brady Bunch.” But I can’t judge. One of the only reasons I thought I could be a writer professionally is because one- or two-star movies made me believe that was possible. “The Devil Wears Prada,” “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days” … both movies with female journalist leads named Andie. I was easily convinced.

Anyway, Mike Brady’s protégé recently sent me a rather interesting issue of the Leesman Review from August 2015. The topic? The acoustic workplace. The argument? That the design of a workplace, specifically the acoustics, can have a significant impact on employee productivity and well-being. One op-ed in the issue cited a study by global consultancy Ipsos of 10,000-plus workers that found office workers lose 86 minutes a day because of distractions.

As somebody who is in no way a design and/or acoustics expert, I can’t judge the quality of these arguments but thought they were worth noting and exploring.

First, let’s define what constitutes a poor acoustic environment. According to this report, it could mean a couple different things. Number one: That the office contains unwanted noise or distractions such as the traffic outside or unsettling background sounds indoors, like phones ringing. And No. 2, there is too much quiet. To quote the review:

“By creating quiet you end up with a library, a place where you can hear a pin drop, when someone coughs it shatters the silence, if someone dare speak everyone is listening whether interested or not in the content of the conversation. You know the office is too quiet when people leave the office to make phone calls and this is a common occurrence.”

The solution, on the most basic level, to create an environment of audio comfort is to amplify some sounds (example: speech) while minimizing others (like background noise, traffic). Reaching audio comfort will supposedly increase productivity in the workplace.

From a design perspective, the Leesman Review argues for certain building characteristics, like using materials that provide sound insulation to protect employees from the outside noise. It also argues that since the open office space isn’t going anywhere, you need some sort of collaboration between designers, space planners and someone who understands office acoustics to optimize the space.

Also interesting: This report puts well-being born from acoustic comfort in your office building under the same “holistic well-being” umbrella we’re hearing a lot about now. Everyone in the wellness space should know by now it has grown to be more inclusive to different types of well-being, like financial, mental, psychological and social, along with physical. We can apparently add “acoustic” well-being to this list?

The review featured several stories and major arguments, too many to expand on in this one post, but these were the general points of interest I found. From my own personal experience as a wellness blogger, it’s a nice break to stop thinking about wellness in terms of intangibles (policies, cultures, expectations) and start thinking about how physical space and design could impact wellness.

I agree that office design can have an impact on one’s work to a certain degree, but not necessarily to a dramatic degree. It depends on the noise. The occasional loud construction noises outside the building can be very, very distracting some days, but the everyday traffic noises should just blend into the background.

Part of the conversation I think should be important is: Sure, there are some sounds to minimize and some to amplify, but what about all the noise that’s just there? Aren’t there certain sounds to just get used to? When is background noise just background noise, and when is it a distraction that threatens employee productivity and well-being?

What do you think? Are acoustics really that important to employee productivity (and, ultimately, the bottom line) or well-being? Is this a case of employers needing to design more efficient buildings, or a case of employees have to stop complaining about noise, like the proverbial older couple telling teenagers to turn their stereo down?

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below, or email at aburjek@humancapitalmedia.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.