In the workplace, being comfortable matters.
We are living and working during an era where people have the ability to choose between working remotely and spending their workday in the corporate office. As a result, the environment that allows them to work most comfortably will win every time.
But what do we mean by 'comfort'? It entails far more than casual attire and staying at home. It's about having the right lighting, temperature, ambiance, and acoustics.
Here, we're diving into the importance of acoustic comfort in the workplace — discover what it is and how to achieve it so you can help renew the excitement of the in-office experience for your employees.
For employees to stay productive and engaged with their work, there are several things that must be achieved. First, people need to feel comfortable in their working environment, which means your office design has to align with the needs of each and every individual employee.
The lighting in the office needs to be illuminating, not jarring. Today more than ever, indoor air quality is an essential factor. Temperature and noise control can make or break the workplace experience. Too cold and employees are forced to wear jackets in August. Too hot and your facilities team will get an onslaught of service requests claiming the air conditioning is broken.
But when all of these factors come together — and you get them just right — you feel more confident in your workplace design. It is an important way to ensure your strategies are effective at supporting your employees' performance, health, and wellbeing in the workplace.
But for the purposes of this article, we will focus on one of the elements that often is overlooked by office designers, especially with the more contemporary — read: open — office designs — and that’s acoustic comfort in buildings.
For one of our blog posts back in 2016, we spoke with Steve Johnson, founder of ADI Workplace Acoustics, about bad conference room acoustics — and how they have been sabotaging the clarity, privacy, and focus of meetings.
Bad conference room acoustics sabotage the clarity, privacy, and focus of meetings.
Through his company, Steve creates sound masking systems and offers speech privacy services to businesses nationwide — so he knows all about the importance of achieving acoustic comfort in buildings and provides helpful guidance on the ways they can get it.
We turned to Steve for expert insights on acoustic comfort in buildings, starting with a definition of acoustic comfort.
According to Steve, acoustic comfort is, "A condition within a room or space that allows that space to be used effectively.”
Acoustic comfort is "a condition within a room or space that allows that space to be used effectively," according to Steve Johson.
Seems easy enough to achieve, right?
Well, it seems that many office designers and space planners are just not getting it right. Survey after survey has found that acoustic quality is the one factor continually receiving disapproval from office building occupants.
Maybe that’s because people, at least those who can change acoustic comfort in buildings for the better, don’t fully understand its importance. Or perhaps, they just don’t know the steps they need to take to improve acoustic comfort. It might even be both of those things.
What's the top reason you need better noise control in your office? Acoustic comfort in buildings enables your employees to focus and stay productive in the workplace.
Office noise distractions triggered a 66% drop in concentration and performance.
A World Green Building Council report found that office noise distractions triggered a 66% drop in concentration and performance with those surveyed. And while productivity is a hard thing to measure, Steve said it’s one of the main reasons offices need to strive to achieve acoustical comfort.
“Companies that pay attention to acoustics benefit from higher levels of productivity and higher levels of satisfaction in their workforce. It is readily apparent through numerous studies that distraction from conversations reduces productivity. When distraction occurs, work stops and error rates increase. Improvement of workplace acoustics reduces distractions and allows more effective work. If there was a magic productivity pill for the workplace, it would be acoustics.”
"If there was a magic productivity pill for the workplace, it would be acoustics." - Steve Johnson
He even went on to say that The WELL Building Standard recognizes that workplace acoustics affect the health of workers.
People exposed to excessive amounts of loud noise experience hearing damage, increased stress hormone levels, raised blood pressure, motivational loss, and are even more susceptible to slumping.
Not to mention, failure to have better noise control is costly. In Europe alone, the cost of noise pollution is $30.8 billion per year. That estimated amount accounts for lost productivity, lost work days, health care treatment and impaired learning.
So how can you provide the best workplace environment for your employees through acoustic comfort?
Here's what we learned from Steve: In terms of meetings room specifically, acoustical comfort is largely determined by Reverberation Time, or RT. Rooms with glass, whiteboards, and similar hard surfaces cause sound to reflect around the room and create an uncomfortable environment for talking, whether in person or over the phone. His solution here is to add acoustical materials that absorb sound, just like what's pictured below.
Another solution he suggested was sound masking.
“Another key to an effective meeting room is to have acoustical isolation from surrounding areas,” he said.
“When conversations from outside the room are understandable, they distract the occupants from the business at hand. When walls, ceilings, windows, and doors allow sound to pass freely, sound masking systems provide an effective improvement. When a good mix of acoustical materials to absorb sound and sound masking to increase privacy are implemented, workspaces become highly effective.”
"When a good mix of acoustical materials to absorb sound and sound masking to increase privacy are implemented, workspaces become highly effective." Steve Johnson
The General Services Administration also mentions that there needs to be enhanced employee awareness of their coworkers to improve acoustic features and achieve acoustic comfort.
As anyone who has worked in an office can attest to, it can be a frustrating experience when the office is noisy and distracting. There will always be a colleague who takes work-related and personal phone calls from their desk, coworkers having loud conversations nearby, and other unavoidable distractions.
Managers and team leaders can do their part by reminding employees to remain mindful and respectful of other office-based employees. Some companies even choose to set up what are called “neighborhood agreements” — where those working within the same vicinity or on the same floor collectively agree on their noise control rules. That way, everyone knows when it’s fine to talk at your desk, when it’s appropriate to have meetings at someone’s desk, and so on.
Today’s workplace trends are evolving quickly, but two business goals that never change are improving office productivity and cutting costs.
However, in a hybrid workplace with a distributed workforce, people need to know there are benefits to working in the office. When they choose to come into the office, they're looking forward to collaborating with people in person again or looking for a quiet space away from noisy roommates. With acoustic comfort in buildings where they work, it's easier to meet both your productivity and cost goals — while also providing a comfortable work environment.