Man Laughing In His Acoustic Workplaces Office

Acoustic Workplaces – What is it all about?

This article is an excerpt from an article written by Amber Rolt for the Estates Gazette.

Is your workplace acoustically sound?

In an open-plan office environment, decent acoustics can seem like a pipe dream. But will other companies follow Landsec’s lead in creating innovative and ear-friendly offices, or is it all noise?

Once upon a time, private offices were the ultimate workplace status symbol. The bigger the better, with the elusive corner office the most coveted of all – if your name was on the door, it spoke volumes. Ironic, given that one of the benefits of being able to shut yourself away at work is the creation of a quiet space. A space arguably more conducive to productivity than the open-plan set-ups we have become used to today.

The latter – preferred by many to encourage collaboration and team bonding – might be a more modern approach to workplace design. But it can play havoc with concentration levels: “Unfortunately, open plan now pervades the world,” says Julian Treasure, founder of the Sound Agency, a consultancy that works with the likes of Hammerson, Harrods and the BBC to create acoustic environments that elevate, rather than diminish, activity. “People in noisy offices can be as little as one-third as productive when they are doing mind-work.”

This may be the case, but research by the Leesman Index – the largest independent collection of workplace effectiveness data in the world, surveying nearly 300,000 employees working out of more than 2,300 offices in 67 countries – suggests that open-plan and private office set-ups can be as good or bad as each other. The trick to success is building in flexibility and decent acoustics. And while the latter is trickier to get right in an open-plan environment, it can be done.

Take Landsec as an example. Reluctant to turn its back on an open-plan office at its new headquarters, the REIT instead invested heavily in acoustics. This went way beyond installing a sound system and churning out background music – the developer created an acoustic environment that promotes cognitive function. Amazon has done something similar at its Seattle HQ. This is not a trend that applies only to offices. It transcends asset classes and is particularly relevant in the healthcare, retail and leisure sectors, where there is a growing awareness that assets that sound better can perform better.

Innovation, collaboration and concentration

When Landsec moved offices from the Strand, WC2, to its Nova development in Victoria, SW1, it decided to embrace the open-plan office – great for collaboration, but not always great for concentration.

With 470 employees sharing one floorplate, the developer decided to invest in “soundscaping” for the new office – a technique which aims to create the right level of ambient sounds to drown out unwanted noise.

“We were conscious that we didn’t want a chaotic and noisy working environment,” says Neil Pennell, head of engineering and design at Landsec: “To ensure the sound levels and acoustic environment made a positive contribution to productivity, we installed an IP (internet protocol)-based white noise system linked to speakers installed across the floorplate.

“The technology allows us to set various levels of white noise across different parts of the workspace to ensure that the acoustics are maintained at an optimum level. This innovation has helped create a great working experience for our employees.”

And Landsec is not the only one to have invested in this. Amazon has installed a variation on the system across its headquarters in Seattle.

Research suggests that unproductive, distracted workers in an office ultimately end up costing a company money. This is where flexibility – in this case a mixture of designated quiet and noisy spaces – comes in. The importance of sound when it comes to the value of an asset goes way beyond the workplace.

Turn it down

Hospitals are a prime example. The World Health Organisation recommends that average patient noise levels remain at around 30 decibels. In reality this figure is nearer 48 decibels in most hospitals – loud enough to cause lack of sleep and slower patient recovery.

“Noise levels in hospitals are in the region of 12 times the world health organisation recommendation,” says Treasure. “That’s a shocking number. Just fitting acoustic ceilings instead of the cheapest possible ceilings can make a difference. Putting in soothing sound can also mask some of the noises, and before and after operations it can improve recovery times and reduce stress levels. Sound is so important to design within these facilities that I honestly believe we could transform healthcare outcomes pretty much overnight if we made hospitals a lot quieter and improved the sound conditions.”

Sound can affect our behaviour as well as our concentration and health, and a growing number of retail and restaurant occupiers and owners have worked out that they can increase their turnover and customer spend with the right acoustics.

Enhancing productivity

So why does sound have such an impact on the way that we feel and behave? Treasure explains that it can have an impact on life in three main ways:

“…People feel unhappy when noise is assailing them, it can lead to a sense of frustration and stress, and then on top of happiness we have our wellbeing – people’s health can be severely affected by working in noisy conditions, and the third is productivity.”

These emotional and cognitive responses to the sounds in our surroundings have been deeply rooted in our evolution as humans.

Sound therapist and founder of Healthy Sound, Lyz Cooper, says: “Our brains have evolved to respond to sound in certain ways. We have this innate programming and sensitivities in the ear that makes us do this. So, if you hear an alarm, your body will release adrenalin which is because we have evolved to rely on alarm calls in nature to help us work out of we were about to be eaten by something. This is something that still remains with us now, which means that noise can put us into a constant hum of sound-related stress.”

However, this can work both ways. While unwanted noise can cause stress, sounds can also be manipulated to reduce it.

Plan ahead

In order to provide optimum acoustics in the built environment, plans need to be in place from the very first design stages.

This is something not many in the construction and property industry take into account, with some only registering its importance once the project is complete and operational.

Treasure says: “Architects can train for up to five years, and typically they only spend one day on sound in that five years. If you ask them to show you their work, they will show you a picture or a model, which is all for the eyes.”

Interior designer at NBBJ Clark Pickett agrees: “I think sound is overlooked by most of us in the profession, except for in areas where it is really crucial, like theatres and recording studios.

Forward-planning where different rooms are going to be in developments is another way to improve the sound of a building. Many of the complaints from patients in hospitals is the direct result of a common design problem of having the nurse’s station too close to patient beds. The same applies to five-star hotels, where privacy and quiet is required in guest rooms.

Design with our ears

Now that Landsec has recognised the importance of acoustics, it is likely that other developers will soon follow suit.

Owner-occupiers have an advantage in being able to control acoustics at the design stage, but sound engineers can still be bought in to improve existing projects.

For Treasure, the solution is clear: “The thesis is we need to start designing with our ears as well as with our eyes to create spaces which are fit for purpose.”