HR and Health & Safety
Noise in the office: help or hindrance?

To avert office conflict and ensure productivity stays on track, David Piggott shares five suggestions to help you overcome a noisy workplace. 

Most of us go to work expecting our day to be productive, however, once you arrive in the office this plan can quickly disappear. Between meetings, conference calls, impromptu discussions, and general office chatter, it can be hard to focus.

Even with a well planned day, and scheduled time for productive work, an open plan office and general office noise can cause distraction and be disruptive. What is general office ‘ambience’ can become noise pollution, particularly if you have tasks that require concentration.

To avert office conflict and ensure your productivity stays on track, here are five suggestions to help you overcome a noisy workplace. 

Office chatter
With over a third of our time spent at work, it is natural for friendly banter to become part of the working day. Whether its weekend plans, or deconstructing the latest Netflix binge, the volume of noise created from general conversation can be disruptive.

To mitigate distraction from office noise without becoming a social outcast, create dedicated office quiet-zones, assign a chatter space such as the break room, or even book yourself a meeting room to create yourself a concentration zone.

Another method is to take note of the quieter times in the office, such as when everyone is out for lunch, and schedule this time for tasks that require uninterrupted focus.

Multimedia means many sounds
In today’s hyper-connected world content no longer comes in a static form, and with more opportunities to record, play, display and interact with the media around us, so too comes additional noise. Whether its music to motivate, or auto-play videos on news and other websites, this type of surrounding noise can be disruptive.

To help keep this type of noise at bay, employ a headphone-only policy for colleagues that need a playlist to enhance their workday, or engage IT to disable auto-play on selected browsers during peak business hours.

Disruptive conveniences
Most office environments offer machine-based conveniences that we take for granted – the microwave to heat up your lunch, printers, photocopiers and scanners that integrate into our workday and let us seamlessly complete tasks. Even the ubiquitous mobile phone (which we’re constantly tethered to) can help us to be more productive. But despite these conveniences, the ping, beep and whirr of office machinery can also prove distracting. Of course, there’s always the option to put your mobile on silent, which can help minimise disruption to others, and also ensures you’re not side-tracked by incoming emails, texts and other notifications.

Also consider areas in the office which can be dedicated to machinery to contain interference to one location. Plus if the office machines are all in one location, a walk from your workspace to scan a document or flick on the kettle can help to regain focus and perspective on the task at hand. 

Everyone can hear you, and you can hear everyone
For many roles, conversation is vital to business relationships, so it is essential that you can hear and be heard. But in an open plan office, more often the hum of good business conversation becomes a diversion, particularly when it’s a constant exchange.

Office design can play a significant part in reducing conversational reverberation – not just in the way the space is laid out, providing enough physical space between one person and the next, but also in the materials used to ensure that noise is absorbed rather than amplified. Positioning objects that diffuse sound in strategic positions can help, and plants are also thought to have sound absorbing properties, in addition to improving oxygen levels in open spaces. 

Make some noise
While an open plan office is fraught with potential noise disruption, some suggest that creating noise may actually create a natural barrier to distraction. The addition of pleasant sounds to an open plan environment can actually make it seem quieter, such as introducing low-level ambient sound at a continuous volume and frequency. Such ‘sound masking’ can create an acceptable level of background sound and to some extent mask the fluctuations caused by other office noise. 

Whilst open plan offices drive great benefits, with increased collaboration, more creative ideas, and faster resolution times, there is still a need to ensure that workspaces allow for productive work. Organisations that maintain the right mix of technology, space and staff behaviours will create the right environment to ensure productivity stays on track.

David Piggott is managing director ANZ, for Jabra.

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