The workplace is where we spend most of our lives. Across Europe there’s a fairly even split between private office working versus open plan. However, in the UK, there’s a heavy bias towards the open model - one that embraces the idea of collaboration and, perhaps, shuns the concept of privacy.

This movement towards hyper-intensive, interpersonal working – which was designed to encourage knowledge sharing and creativity – has arguably become counter-productive…quite literally in some cases.   

Struggling with openness  

The UK’s long-standing productivity crisis is well documented. Despite being one of the world’s largest economies, it ranks near the bottom of the G7 league table on productivity measures. The reasons are numerous, but our Worklife report indicates that the layout of the work environment plays a key role. Is it coincidental that the UK has the highest proportion of workers in open plan offices in Europe (58%)?  

While it may be overstating the issue somewhat to directly attach blame to the design of the physical working environment, it’s clear – if we dig a little deeper – that a not-so-silent killer is running loose in our workplace habitats.  

“The UK is currently the eight largest economy in the world, yet productivity, a key determinant of pay and living standards, has been at a relative standstill since 2008.”
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Acoustic disturbance

Using the UK as the most extreme example, 24% of workers in our pan-European worklife study say that their biggest concern is noise – very marginally behind indoor air quality (26%) as the top issue. Consequently, one in four employees prefer to work from home when attempting to overcome periods of high workload. The need for space to concentrate, in the face of rising noise pollution, is something that clearly demands closer attention and smarter workarounds.  

The World Health Organisation estimates that the cost to Europe of excessive noise levels is £30billion in lost working days, healthcare costs and lost productivity. That’s not so surprising when you consider that workers in open plan offices take 70% more sick days than home workers. 70% is also the proportion of offices that feature open plan designs.  

Looking at the causal effects of low productivity, psychological and physiological studies point to a combination of issues. Prolonged exposure to noise is found to increase stress, with research pointing to spikes in blood pressure, heart rate, hormone levels and hypertension.

“Workers can be up to 66% less productive when distracted by just one nearby conversation. When reading or writing, for example, background noise can be a productivity killer. Why? Because cognitive studies show that we have bandwidth for roughly 1.6 human conversations. Consequently, that leaves very little room for us to listen to our own inner voice.”
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Hitting the right note

So what is the solution to this open plan, low productivity puzzle? For many, the answer is to merely fight fire with fire. The popularity of earphones in the workplace is a straight-forward answer, with music becoming a natural refuge from noisy surroundings. But, again, studies show that while this is a good answer for repetitive work, noise blockers can reduce concentration levels for more complex tasks.

To counter the negative impact of noise intrusion, many architects and designers are looking at ways to introduce different room treatments and surface materials. That’s because the downside of having open spaces - with sleek, easy-to-clean surfaces - is that they tend to reflect or amplify unwanted sounds.

These can be mitigated by making greater use of carpets, wallcoverings, upholstered panels and softer furnishings. Not only can this  dampen harsh echoes and improve the office’s overall acoustic performance, it can provide an opportunity to introduce specific zones for private and team working. By tackling the noisy neighbour issue in this way, the future of work looks a lot more in tune with employee wellbeing.   

For more insights into how the UK benchmarks against the rest of Europe, download the ‘Rethinking Workplace’ report.

Rethinking Workplace
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Anette Timmer EMEA Marketing Director Carpets/Workplace

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