The link between office noise and employee stress is nothing new. It has been explored in studies for decades. But are workers now on the verge of demanding more urgent action?

One such study, the Leesman office benchmark, which included over 500,000 respondents worldwide, shows consistently that noise is the sixth perceived most important feature of the workplace by employees – after factors including desk/chair, meeting rooms, natural light and temperature control. 

After temperature control, it remains the biggest issue among office employees, with only 31% indicating they are satisfied with the current noise levels in their workplace. So, for something that’s so clearly a recurring issue, why isn’t more being done to alleviate its impact?

Can we quieten the noise?

According to many, despite advances in acoustic design, current work environments are largely unable to solve noise issues for employees.

But the impact of it goes beyond simply irritation, undesirable behaviour and physical health deterioration. Noisy conditions at work also have a more long-term indirect effect on job performance via decreased motivation and increased workload. And employees who suffer from noise are more inclined to complain about other aspects of the physical office environment too.

Research at Eindhoven University of Technology’s (TU/e) department of the Built Environment provides insight into the effects of different sources of noise in office environments on perceived productivity. And how different types of employees cope with these noise sources. In addition, it addresses the perceived effect of different coping strategies on individual productivity.

Data from a survey of 150 employees, with a focus on human generated noise, reveals that different coping techniques are deployed according to personal characteristics, preferences and attitudes.
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The sample was from three Dutch organisations with acoustic problems in their open office environments (with 70% of employees at an allocated seat and only 55% allowed to work at home). Most people worked in large open plan offices, with between seven and 50 people working in the same room.

  • 81% indicated that intelligible speech conversations (near one’s desk) affects their productivity.
  • Intelligible speech from telephone conversations (74%) is the second most disturbing noise source.
  • The non-human sources are at the bottom of the ranking (e.g. installations and music, with respectively 18.7% and 16.7%).

Adopting coping strategies

When coping with noise, people are most inclined to either ‘Make a greater effort to work despite the noise’ or ‘Discuss the noise problem with colleagues’, both despite their own expectations that this will not have a major positive effect on their productivity.
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Surprisingly, so-called “approach” based coping strategies (engaging with the ‘pain’ and its causes) were chosen less often than the “avoidance” coping strategies (such as ignoring the ‘pain’), although their expected impact on productivity compared to doing nothing was higher.

  • Only a little over 10% expected that their preferred coping strategies would have a major effect on productivity compared to doing nothing.
  • 18% thought that coping by ‘Continuing to work at home’ would be a highly effective strategy.

There are clear preferences for specific coping strategies when exposed to specific noise sources.

  • When the intelligible speech is from adjacent rooms there are no strong preferences, while intelligible speech from common facilities motivates people to choose a more active approach such as a ‘Proposal to management’.
  • For unintelligible background conversations people chose ‘Earplugs/protectors’.
  • While for noise from people passing by, respondents generally did nothing.

Demographically, there are differences in the way that genders and age groups apply coping behaviours:

  • Gender: Males had a stronger preference to ‘Put on music’ and ‘Change your desk’, while women preferred to ‘Discuss noise problems with a colleague’ or ‘Try to be more quiet’.
  • Age: The respondents between 26-35 chose more often to ‘Put on music’ and ‘Change your desk’, while those between 36-45 are more inclined to ‘Use earplugs/protectors’. The oldest group (46-55) is a lot less likely to ‘Put on music’ or ‘Change desk’, while they are more inclined to ‘Discuss the noise problem with colleagues’.

Key takeaways

  • Noise intrusion is extra frustrating for employees without effective coping strategies, especially if they are likely to suffer a loss in productivity. Although many organisations provide the option to work from home for ‘heads down’ work, there is a strong case for tackling office-based noise issues.
  • Working from home is not considered a highly effective alternative by many because they might not have a distraction-free environment at home either. This also discourages interaction and collaboration with colleagues - especially the mentoring of younger or less experienced employees.
  • In-person contact has been shown to increase knowledge sharing behaviour among colleagues and, as a result, increased levels of innovation. These findings are one reason why some larger companies have retreated from home working policies.
  • Decreasing noise intrusion and distractions are proving a difficult puzzle for businesses to solve. Investment in acoustic ‘dampening’ can be expensive, but appear effective in first studies. Other measures, such as more concentration booths, only work if they are provided in sufficient amounts and designed well.
  • Some studies have shown that people do not like to withdraw themselves from the main working environment, being afraid of leaving the group and missing out. So there is clearly a lot of psychology at play here too.
  • Within activity-based offices (ABO), the perception of noise could be improved through better policy agreements amongst employees, such as silent zones and other measures.

Ultimately, careful discussion between businesses and their employees, both before and after moving into an ABO, is crucial to the success of any office design. And this is not only in relation to noise, but all aspects of productivity, health and wellbeing.

Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek Associate Professor of Corporate Real Estate (CRE) & Workplace Management, TU/e Full bio and articles


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