What’s causing noise pollution in offices?

An interesting study has emerged this week that points to a big increase in the levels of noise pollution in offices, and it’s all thanks to the popularity of open plan office spaces.

The open plan office is designed to increase employee collaboration and morale, but this latest study from Oxford Economics found that the resulting noise pollution is reaching new levels. According to the findings, conditions have grown much worse since OE conducted its first study back in 2015.

As part of the latest research, OE interviewed 500 senior executives and non-manager employees from many industries and functional areas, spanning the UK, the US, Germany, India, China, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway.

The study also included detailed interviews with execs who are taking steps to deal with these challenges in their open offices.

Here are some of the findings that many of us will relate to:

The majority of executives and employees surveyed report near-constant noise in their workplace and many say they lack quiet space for meetings or areas where they can focus.

  • Only 1% of employees (down from 20% in 2015) say they are able to block out distractions and concentrate without taking action
  • 54% of executives believe their employees have the tools they need to mitigate noise in the office, but only 29% of employees agree (down from 41% in 2015)
  • 75% of employees say they need to take walks outside to focus, and 32% use headphones to block out distraction.
  • Employees in the noisiest office environments are more likely to say they may leave their job in the next six months

In terms of wellness, productivity and financial performance the study found:

  • 63% of employees say they lack quiet space for focused work, which has a negative effect on their productivity, satisfaction and well-being
  • 96% of executives see employee productivity as critical to their financial performance, yet just 40% understand the link between noise, distraction and productivity
  • Only 6% of executives say they have equipped their office with noise mitigating features

Millennials

Millennials, or those aged 22 to 36, are more accustomed to an open plan office versus older colleagues, likely because they started careers in such a setting. Despite that, they are the first to acknowledge noise issues and deal with it differently than their older colleagues.

Millennial employees are:

  • Much less likely to say they find a noisy working environment energising (9% vs 30% of older colleagues)
  • Less satisfied with their office layout than older employees (38% of millennials versus 48% of others)
  • More likely to say their organisation should address noise, distraction and information overload (89% vs 75% of older co-workers).
  • More likely to say they take walks outside to focus (84% vs 63% of older employees), and less likely to use an office break room or quiet space

As a final footnote, the survey shows a correlation between companies’ revenue growth and how those same companies approach their work environments. More than three-quarters of top performers (revenue growth above 10% and less turnover) report that office design and noise mitigation are important to financial performance and are proactively addressing noise in their offices. These top performing companies are more likely to provide workers with tools to block out noise and quiet spaces where they can focus, and are less likely to say some employees find a noisy environment energising. It’s interesting to highlight that noise in the workplace doesn’t just affect those working in industrial areas or factories, but noise pollution in offices is a real and ever-growing concern that needs to be addressed by employers. Not only to help maintain productivity, but to ensure that people’s health and well-being is safeguarded.

This is completely coincidental but we have just made our sales and marketing offices at Cirrus Research open plan for the first time; so I may well report back if my productivity sees any change – at the moment I think it’s only my waistline that’s changed, due to the “Cake Friday” policy that seems to have taken the office by storm.

Clarke Roberts

Content & Marketing Executive at Cirrus Research plc

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