What is office background noise?
In recent years, open-plan offices have become more popular due to their propensity to foster teamwork and a more collaborative and inclusive environment, but this trend often has an unintended side effect - excessive background noise.
Background noise is inevitable in shared spaces, and in most workplaces, it’s expected to hear ambient noises such as chattering colleagues and ringing phones, but often the design of open-plan offices can mean that sounds rise to the level of distraction.
How does noise affect productivity?
An office that’s completely silent is likely to feel unnatural and uncomfortable, so having ambient noise can improve the atmosphere and lessen the impact of other sounds that will inevitably occur.
There is some evidence that low-level background noise in an office environment can actually boost productivity; studies show that it can increase concentration and promote creative thinking. There are even apps that specifically produce background noise to improve focus and help with relaxation, like Noisli, which uses peaceful background sounds such as a crackling fire, a busy coffee shop, and ocean waves to create a tailored sound environment.
However, having too much noise can be harmful. When excess noise reaches a certain level, it becomes a distraction, affecting concentration, learning, decision-making, and memory. Research shows that more than half of employees say ambient noise reduces their satisfaction at work.
What are acceptable office noise levels?
According to the World Health Organisation, noise above 65dB is defined as noise pollution, and exposure to high levels of noise can have long-term effects on health and wellbeing, such as stress, sleeping problems. tinnitus, and hypertension.
The average noise level in an office is lower than this, at around 45-60dB, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when background noise becomes uncomfortably loud. People often have varying levels of tolerance for certain types of sound; whilst one person may not mind low-level music or conversation, another may find it irritating or distracting, so it can be a challenge to find a level of ambient noise that works for everyone.
How to reduce noise in open plan office
In an open-plan office, some noises are hard to avoid, but simple measures such as layout and furnishings can reduce the noise level significantly.
Having “quiet zones” where phone calls and loud music are prohibited can provide a sanctuary for those who need to be free from distractions, and using furniture such as sofas, bookcases, and screens to divide the room into smaller areas can stop sound from travelling across open spaces.
Hard, flat surfaces reflect sound waves, causing echoes and reverberations, whereas soft furnishings absorb sound, tempering the effect of harsher noise. If footsteps on hard flooring seem particularly loud, a rug can help to soften the sound.
Other office noise reduction solutions include:
Noise Reduction Headphones
Noise-cancelling or noise reduction headphones pick up background noise before it hits the ear, and produce an inverted sound that cancels out the external noise. Noise reduction headphones are a simple way to minimise distraction caused by background noise, but they are one of the more expensive options for companies with lots of employees.
The use of noise-cancelling headphones may reduce communication between employees, creating a less sociable atmosphere and limiting the potential for collaborative work, which negates many of the benefits of an open-plan office.
White Noise Devices
White noise devices can be used to mitigate the effect of background noise. By producing static sound at a comfortable level, white noise machines mask other noises which can provide more privacy in conversations, reduce echo, and “drown out” other noises, making them less likely to disturb or interrupt work. Whilst white noise machines work well to mask sounds in higher-traffic areas such as office kitchens, they can be a costly solution for larger spaces, and may cause discomfort for some people with sensory issues such as tinnitus, hearing loss, autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder. A study published at Wiley online and quoted in the Sensory Overload entry on Wikipedia found that “Even such meaningless stimuli such as white noise or flickering lights may induce sensory overload.”
Noise Reduction Panels
Acoustic Office Screens
Acoustic partitions are an easy and effective way of managing sound in an office environment. Using acoustic panels can help to divide an open-plan office into dedicated spaces for certain activities, e.g. a breakout area, meeting booths, or quiet work zones, allowing for more privacy and focus when it really matters.
Using sound-absorbing partition screens helps to maintain an ideal level of acoustic comfort by reflecting sound waves, preventing noise from spreading throughout large spaces. Panelscreens Acoustic Partition Screens absorb up to 45% of general office noise, reducing overall background noise and eliminating echo and reverberation, leading to a calm, distraction-free atmosphere.
Acoustic partition screens are a popular choice due to their flexibility; they are easy to assemble and can be adapted to suit your needs. These noise reducing dividers are available with freestanding, fixed, or adjustable feet, and can be linked together to make an extended sound-absorbing barrier in just a few seconds, making them ideal for creating privacy and peace of mind in dynamic office environments.
Acoustic Desk Dividers
In many offices, teamwork is an integral part of day-to-day business, but often space and layout issues prohibit the number of team pods and meeting rooms. In open-plan agencies, sales companies, and offices where hotdesking is the norm, it’s hard to balance the ever-changing needs of different teams and individuals, and employees can quickly become frustrated with the lack of options.
Panelscreens’ Acoustic Desk Dividers are designed for flexibility and versatility. As smaller versions of the larger acoustic panels, they can be fitted to individual desks or installed as separators for shared workspaces.
Available in different heights, they can be used to separate larger benches and workstations to provide acoustic insulation and can be installed alone or connected with other panels. Panelscreens Acoustic Screen Dividers and room dividers are pinnable, so notes and information can easily be kept at hand. So, whether you need a common area for teams to get together and share ideas, a quiet space away from the hustle and bustle for client calls, or a private cubicle for focused work, anyone can use acoustic screens to create a workspace that suits their needs in just a few seconds.
Acoustic Wall Baffle Panels
Designed to absorb direct sound and reduce echo, acoustic wall baffle panels are great for managing noise levels in louder zones such as breakout areas, office kitchens, and spaces that tend to produce echoes.
Absorbing up to 85% of direct sound at 1700Hz frequency, wall baffle panels are an efficient option for preventing noise pollution and maintaining a quiet environment in areas that surround busy entrances and social spots, and they’re available in a range of styles including frameless hexagonal tiles, modular board panels, and wall-mounted baffles.
Bringing elements of nature into your office has many benefits. Studies show that biophilic design can reduce stress, make a workplace feel more comfortable and enjoyable, and even increase productivity.
Introducing greenery can also have a positive impact on office acoustics. Many plants have natural sound-absorbing qualities, so even small desk plants can help to reduce noise levels, but for those that aren’t green-thumbed, natural moss panels are a lower-maintenance option. Requiring no sunlight, watering, or feeding, these panels absorb up to 90% of ambient sound, and they’re evergreen, so they look great too!
When it comes to office design, many people choose aesthetics over acoustics, but having a quiet and peaceful office is a vital part of employee wellness, so incorporating the principles of soundscaping into your design can transform a workplace in more ways than one!
Planning a renovation for your office? Check out our full range of sound management solutions for modern workplaces.