Humming photocopiers, beeping fax machines, squawking speakerphones, varying cellphone ring tones and the voices of office mates. Today's workers are subjected to a cacophony of irritating workplace sounds - and experts say that adds a lot more tension to those who are already feeling stressed out.
"The incessant chatter, the cellphones, the machines in the office. It's all annoying noise that contributes to the stress of trying to do your job. It affects concentration, it affects productivity and it affects health," says Carol Loveridge, executive director of MFL Occupational Health Centre Inc. in Winnipeg. "Everybody is overworked these days. This just adds to it."
On top of that, the nature of our work has changed, making it more difficult to focus. "We're typically doing a lot more head-down work that requires concentration, creativity and attention to detail, and all those aspects of work are influenced by noise," says Niklas Moeller, vice-president of K.R. Moeller Associates Ltd., a Mississauga-based company that makes and installs corporate sound-masking systems.
Comfortable hearing levels are under 60 decibels (dBA), according to the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Md.. Sounds measured at 70 dBA can be intrusive and interfere with telephone conversations, while constant exposure to sounds 85 dBA and higher can result in hearing damage, according to the institute.
So what are you picking up while at the office? Here are decibel levels for some workplace sounds:
50-65: Normal conversation in an office
60: Background music
70: Conversation in a loud voice
80: Ringing telephone
Source: Center for Hearing and Communication
DIN VERSUS DESIGN
For many companies, an acoustically friendly work environment often loses out to design. And the latest trends in office design aren't helping, according to Niklas Moeller, vice-president of K.R. Moeller Associates Ltd., which makes and installs corporate sound-masking systems.
More companies are opting for open-concept workplaces, with lower partitions between workstations and direct sight lines that allow natural light into the inner reaches of offices, which only exacerbates noise issues, he says.
Workstations are getting smaller and soft, absorbent materials are being replaced with hard, shiny surfaces and polished wood floors, which reflect noise instead of absorbing it, Mr. Moeller says.
"Acoustics is not usually top of mind. It often just happens, it's not planned for," Mr. Moeller says, adding that ignoring a workspace's acoustical environment can be a huge mistake.
"Employees' satisfaction with their work environment is a key retention strategy."
HITTING THE RIGHT NOTE
When custom software developer Alocet Inc. moved into a new building in downtown Toronto four years ago, president Paul Jackson knew noise was going to be an issue. Formerly an old printing house, the space had high walls, beautiful exposed beams and a metal ceiling. "It has a great loft feeing to it," Mr. Jackson says.
The challenge, he says, was to strike the right balance: how to minimize noise while still retaining the open-concept feel that encourages employee collaboration.
"We have a love/hate relationship with noise. We have some departments that need quiet, so noise is bad, and if you want collaboration, noise is good," he says.
To meet the needs of both, the company created work zones according to job function. Sales and marketing staff who are always on the phone, for example, are grouped together and set apart from other staff behind a wall, while software developers and other workers who require quiet are grouped together in another area.
Mr. Jackson says the firm opted to go with low walls between workstations to allow for better collaboration, but had them custom-made with the highest grade of sound-absorbent materials. It also had a white-noise-generating system installed to help wash out the sound of conversations, computer keyboards and ringing telephones.
Other measures to reduce noise include designating quiet time from 9:00 to 11:30 each morning for all but its sales staff. "If you have a question or need input, you save it for later in the day. It took a while to get used to that but it works well now," Mr. Jackson says. Staff can use instant messaging to facilitate quiet communication during that time, he adds.
To avoid unnecessary chatter, employees are encouraged to take personal phone calls away from their desks. They're also free to tune out any distractions by listening to their iPods.
"You really have to embrace what each department needs. If you're not blocking out the sounds for staff who are always in deep thinking mode, they're not going to be happy and they'll leave. On the other hand, some employees need noise and view it as a very positive thing. Either way, if you don't address noise you're going to see severe consequences," Mr. Jackson says.
Find it hard to focus whenever you hear your co-workers' Mexican Hat Dance ring tone? You're not alone. A 2009 study by researchers at Louisiana State University, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that cellphone ring tones disrupted students' ability to retain information.
In one experiment, researchers played various cell phone ring tones while students were working on simple computer tasks in a lab. The researchers found that the students performed much more slowly after the ring tone interruption than they had before. In a second experiment, a cellphone rang loudly for about 30 seconds during a lecture; students later tested on the material presented while the phone was ringing scored 25 per cent worse on that material than the rest of the lecture content.
Expert tips for reducing noise in the workplace:
Do a sound audit. Identify potential noise hazards and figure out ways to deal with them.
Develop a workplace respect policy that addresses employee behaviour when it comes to noise, including cellphone and speakerphone use.
Soundproof your space. There are plenty of ways to make your office quieter, from acoustic tiles to sound-masking systems to higher cubicle walls. Carpets, curtains and plants all absorb sound, while water fountains and fans produce white noise that will help drown out other noises.
Provide quiet rooms where employees can work on tasks that require complete concentration.
Allow staff to tune out with headphones.
Group staff according to the work they do. For example, set sales staff constantly working the phones well away from staff who require quiet to do their jobs.
Use your inside voice. No one wants to hear every word of your phone conversations, be they professional or personal.
Ask for help. If noise is a constant bother, ask your manager about purchasing a portable noise masking system or noise-cancelling headphones.
Silence your cellphone. Set your phone to vibrate.
Use headphones if you listen to music while you work.
21: Percentage of U.S. workers who cite loud noises such as speakerphones and cellphone ring tones are a top pet peeve.
18: Percentage of British workers who say loud phone talkers are among the most annoying workplace behaviours.
71: Percentage of workers who want music played in the workplace.
85: Percentage who say they are happier when listening to music at work.
62: Percentage of workers who say listening to music at work makes them feel more productive.
13: Percentage who say listening to music at work is unprofessional.
Sources: Ipsos Public Affairs-Randstad 2010 survey of 1,000 employed U.S. adults; Opinium Research, 2010 survey of 1836 British workers; MusicWorks 2010 survey of 1,200 workers; Express Employment Professionals 2008 online poll
Special to The Globe and Mail