Designing people-friendly spaces starts with knowing what matters to the users; what makes them tick and what bothers them the most. For European office workers, a noisy environment and poor air quality are top of the list of office concerns according to a Tarkett workplace survey. Here we explore some of the challenges identified and some possible solutions for the modern office space including the compelling nature of the human voice and bird song

In today’s working world, employers have become much more flexible to people’s needs. And while some companies are leading the way in adopting a more human-centric approach to the way we work, there’s still a long way to go. First, we must learn what’s important to them.

Here, we share some insights from the Tarkett workplace survey of 2,500 European employees on the main concerns workers have, to help create workspaces that support wellbeing and enhance productivity across the Continent.

Top concerns for workplace design revealed

Strikingly, it was invisible factors that were found to matter more than aesthetics. Almost half (49%) of those surveyed placed noise and indoor air quality as their top two workplace worries – coming out ahead of wider environmental concerns, layout and location. 

Almost half (49%) of those surveyed placed noise and indoor air quality as their top two workplace worries – coming out ahead of wider environmental concerns, layout and location.
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This may come as a surprise to some as traditionally great importance has been paid to the physical design attributes of the working environment. However, it brings to light a need for businesses to re-evaluate what’s most important to the daily wellbeing of their staff.

Too loud to hear yourself think?

According to the Tarkett workplace survey of 2,500 European employees, the hustle and bustle of the office was the single biggest issue across the Continent - especially in France where a third of employees felt that it is has a negative impact on their working life.

Interestingly though, 43% of the French office workers surveyed had a private office, with only a quarter working in an open plan space, with a similar pattern across the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany too. While office noise can come from a number of sources such as the air conditioning or the printer – so called ‘white noise’ - the most distracting is the human voice because of its intelligibility. People find it difficult not to listen to conversations when we can understand the words; we’re simply wired to tune in to our colleague’s talking. Not the least because of what’s called the ‘Lombard effect’; the phenomenon of people speaking louder as it gets noisier around them.

We’re simply wired to tune in to our colleagues talking. Not the least because of what’s called the ‘Lombard effect’; the phenomenon of people speaking louder as it gets noisier around them.
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However, this does not seem to be as much of a challenge for the Brits. Less than a quarter put noise as their biggest concern despite nearly 60% of the British respondents working in an open plan office environment - and less than a fifth having a private room. In fact, they were more worried about air quality - although noise was a close second.

Perhaps the British are more tolerant of office clatter, or maybe they just like to chat during office hours. When asked what their preferred working environment was, it was near enough a draw between open plan (34%) and a private office (32%) suggesting that talkative or not, many would like to their own space.

These national results indicate that although noise is a pan-European issue, there is a big discrepancy between countries and in particular between office workers in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden and those in the UK. This is particularly true with regards to office layout and the mix between open plan and private office space. The Workplace survey suggests that all the nationalities would prefer a private space away from the office melee, with nearly half of the Germans preferring a quiet spot.

 

The Workplace survey suggests that all the nationalities would prefer a private space away from the office melee.
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Take a deep breath

Indoor air quality is another big worry for European employees, with those working in the UK feeling particularly anxious - and for good reason. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls indoor air quality one of the top five environmental health risks of our time.

The issue has been high on the agenda across Europe for years, with the EU currently reviewing draft legislation to ensure construction companies and end-users take indoor air quality into consideration during renovation work.

It’s worth noting that it’s the younger generation - Gen Zs (18-24 year olds) - who are particularly worried about the air they breathe, suggesting that this is an issue that will continue to grow in importance as the next generation of talent rises through the ranks.

Gen Zs (18-24 year olds) are particularly worried about the air they breathe so this is an issue that may continue to grow in importance as they rise through the ranks.
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It is also the key concern for employees working in government organisations. In fact, just as with noise, the size of the organisation was a key factor for air quality too with office workers in larger corporates seeing it as a major issue, while those working for SMEs were less worried.

A busier office environment could create a less desirable air quality if not considered properly at the design stage to allow employees easy access to well ventilated spaces and easy access to fresh air.

Human centered solutions

The challenge is how to address these two invisible concerns to build better workplaces that respond to the needs of today’s modern workforce.

There are numerous solutions for absorbing office noise including ceiling panels and acoustic boards. Although effective, many interior designers are reluctant to include these as they often detract from the look and feel they are trying to achieve.

More subtle options may include using commerical office textile products such as sound absorbing carpet tiles with a specialist backing and designer acoustic wall art panels. Both could be designed to blend in or enhance the overall scheme.

Working alongside these noise absorbing solutions, there are some emerging ‘soundscaping’ concepts which help make speech unintelligible to tackle the distraction of the human voice. These include introducing authentic natural sounds, such as bird song and trickling water into the office environment to make speech harder to decipher – with the added bonus of connecting people with nature.

People-centred workspaces study

Designing people-friendly spaces starts with knowing what matters to them – and understanding some of the science behind it - to help create workplaces that are truly designed for the modern world.

If you want to know more about what European office workers really value and care about, download ‘Rethinking Workplace - Part I’. This will give you more in-depth insights and how they differ by age, geography, demographic, sector and more. 

And if you would like to be part of the conversation, please click here for more information about being a Great Indoors contributor.

Rethinking Workplace - Part I
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Camille van Emstede Segment Manager Workplace

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