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The Damaging Effects of Noisy Offices

Posted on Aug 3, 2016, by Michael Eckert

Noise levels are one of the leading causes of workplace complaints. The open office trend is making noise levels a growing problem: fewer walls to block sound and more people in a shared space.

The American Society of Heating and Air Conditioning Engineers recommends that offices have a noise range between 49 and 58 dBA so as not to interfere with conversations or distract workers.  But workers themselves prefer lower noise levels – not exceeding 52 dBA. (source)

But why exactly are loud offices a problem? Today we’re looking at 3 reasons why noisy offices are damaging – both for organizations and employees alike.

1) Productivity

Research has shown that a typical office worker gets interrupted every three minutes, and it can take up to 23 minutes for them to get back on track with their work. Background noise in the office is a constant distraction that employees have to contend with on a daily basis.

The link between noise levels and reduced productivity is particularly problematic in open offices. Open offices are naturally louder than workplaces divided into cubicles or smaller offices, due to the increased number of people sharing the workspace.

Workplace noise has been repeatedly linked to reduced performance and productivity, with high noise levels limiting employees’ ability to recall important information, and even perform basic arithmetic. Therefore, it’s important to design office spaces, and create good working practices, that are proven to improve office productivity.

2) Hampering Collaboration

Improved collaboration and creativity are two of the biggest benefits of the shift to open office working. However, the price we often pay for this is increased noise levels, which can threaten to destroy the collaborative environment you have designed.

With collaboration comes more conversation, but if you’ve got lots of separate conversations happening at the same time, they can drown each other out and distract employees all around. This can lead to employees being reluctant to hold a meeting or informal chat in your open office environment, or people whispering during a meeting to try and limit the impact they have on their colleagues’ productivity.

Thus, an open office with poor sound insulation can actually make employees less likely to work together, and create a tense environment where people try to be as quiet as possible.

3) Health and Wellness

With employees spending upwards of 40 hours a week in the office, creating a healthy work environment should be top priority. But high noise levels can have a major impact on health and wellness, by contributing to increased stress levels among employees.

Research by Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson found that employees who had prolonged exposure to even low levels of office noise (55dBA) resulted in elevated levels of hormones indicative of stress.

Additionally, Evans and Johnson discovered that people working in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments to their workplace than they would in quieter, more private spaces. This puts the body under increased physical strain and discomfort. When comparing staff absence levels, the noisier office environments will often see significant increases in absences and sick leave.

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Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert