While HR doesn’t want to be the office police, hubbub can affect wellbeing and work rate.
Are you giving this article your full attention? Or are you battling with the radio playing in your workplace? Is the annoying ringtone of a colleague’s mobile phone driving you to distraction? Or is it the mechanical wheezing of a photocopier, or the loud conversation drifting over from the coffee counter? Sometimes the world can seem like a very noisy place, particularly at work.
Many companies encourage and are proud of the ‘open communication’ environments they set up, but do these fun, lively workplaces come at the expense of quality work and productivity?
Noise levels in the workplace are a health and safety issue – and while this article isn’t about the high noise levels endured by workers in construction, agriculture or anyone toiling in a nightclub, for example, it is about the increasing ubiquity and impact of ‘background’ noise.
An international study from last year, that included Australia, and was conducted by economic consultants, Oxford Economics, found that a mere one per cent of employees (both senior executives and lower ranks from across industries) say they can block out distraction. This is a dramatic drop from 2015 when 20 per cent said they were able to concentrate despite office noise.
Cavernous, open-plan offices have a lot to answer for. Some 63 per cent of employees said they lacked a quiet space for focused work, which has a negative effect on their productivity, satisfaction and well-being. Celia Walker (name has been changed) works in a large, glamorous creative agency in Sydney. Although she is of a generation that is used to music being part of her work environment, she says the noise of people walking in high heels across the highly-polished floor drives her mad.
“There’s very little I can say or do about it, but I’ve come close to throwing something, it’s so annoying.”
Her response is to retire to a local coffee shop with her laptop or go for a walk to calm herself. Three-quarters of employees in the Oxford Economics survey do the same, while 32 per cent use headphones to block out distraction. More worryingly for HR, employees in the noisiest office environments are more likely to say they may leave their job in the next six months.
Pitch and performance
There is a correlation in the survey between companies’ revenue growth and how those companies approach their work environments. More than three-quarters of top performers (revenue growth above 10 per cent and less turnover) report that office design and noise mitigation are important to financial performance and are proactively addressing the noise epidemic in their offices.
Take the Barangaroo office blocks in Sydney. When PwC moved in, one (windowless) office room was allocated for workers who require peace and quiet.
The reality is that while HR can’t change the layout of an organisation without a commitment from the company, there are ways to get colleagues collaborating to limit the noise and elements you can introduce to dampen the din:
- Don’t single out particularly noisy people, but bring up the issue of office etiquette in a group meeting so everyone is onboard with noise levels.
- Explain why colleagues may need a quiet environment, to conduct a phone call or to meet a deadline so that your request seems reasonable.
- Lead by example: If someone talks really loud, respond in a softer voice with something like, “I want to hear this, but I don’t want to disturb people, so can we step into a conference room?”
- Semi-private lounge groupings with furniture that shields out noise. Carpet and underlay or padding help in areas of high pedestrian traffic.
- Indoor plants, such as the Ficus Tree or Peace Lily, placed strategically also absorb noise.
- Establish dedicated quite and loud zones.
- Introduce random, natural sounds to the workplace environment that obscure or “mask” the sound of distracting conversations. The sound of waterfalls is a popular choice.
Learn about the duties and responsibilities of employers and employees in ensuring a safe work environment in the AHRI short course ‘Workplace health and safety’.