Reducing noise in the office: how to restore peace and quiet

86 minutes: that’s how much time the average office employee loses to distractions every day. A major source of that distraction is noise. To put a stop to noise pollution as an employer, you’ll need to address the building, the layout, and employee behaviour.

When the individual desks of the 1950s gave way to the open office, there was no end to the enthusiasm: more communication, creativity, and a better dynamic. However, with the advent of the open office, the decibel levels also hit an all-time high.

That noise impedes employee productivity. “However, employers still all too frequently underestimate the negative impact of noise on the workplace,” says Mensura Ergonomics Health and Safety Officer, Gerrit Pollentier. “And yet, research shows that stress and distractions are 30% lower in an acoustics-conscious office.”

Objective versus subjective

As an employer, you have every interest in keeping noise pollution to a minimum. But how do you make it happen? Gerrit: “An initial step is carrying out a risk analysis to map the noise. By taking measurements, a health and safety officer objectively determines the noise level at various times. Workers engaged in VDU-based work concentrate best when the noise level doesn’t exceed 45 decibels. As soon as the noise reaches 55 decibels, comparable to a coffee machine percolating, the noise becomes irritating.”

A thorough risk analysis goes beyond objective measurements. Gerrit: “Employee input is also a key factor. Noise is only harmful when it distracts workers. These workers provide feedback on office noises via systematic surveys. It’s only by linking this subjective response to the objective measurement results that the health and safety officer is able to arrive at a clear picture of the noise nuisance in the workplace.”

Sources of noise: 4 categories

If the risk analysis reveals that operations are on the loud side, there are four areas that can be addressed: the building, the design, the layout, and employee behaviour.

  1. Has the building been sufficiently insulated against environmental noise? The ventilation system can also be a source of noise pollution. For that reason, it’s important to make sure that air vents and vibration dampers are correctly positioned.
  2. In addition, the right office design can reduce noise to a minimum. There are all kinds of soundproofing materials, furniture, and flooring. Houseplants also help dull noise and reduce the number of decibels in the workplace.
  3. In addition, the office layout is a key factor to success. Ideally, the layout should be activity-based, with separate areas provided for different activities, such as meetings, concentration, copying, presentation, etc. Employees with different sets of duties ought to work in separate areas.

    For tasks that require significant concentration, employees should be able to isolate themselves in a quiet room or concentration workstation. If separate rooms are not an option, employees can also create a virtual cocoon. Things like headphones or icons that show whether or not someone has time for a short chat or discussion.
  4. Where noise is concerned, an acoustic etiquette clearly defines the rules of play. After all, good agreements make for quiet (and calm!) colleagues. For instance, employees can use a separate telephone booth for (long) telephone calls. By making agreements and communicating clearly, nuisance is prevented and the risk of conflict declines. It goes without saying that the existing (IT) infrastructure has to be taken into account. For example, separate telephone booths aren’t terribly helpful if employees don’t have mobile phones.

The golden rule: customisation

There are all kinds of ways to mitigate noise. Gerrit: “However, there is one rule of thumb: customisation is key. Reducing noise pollution is only possible when the measures are carefully tailored to employee preferences, activity type, etc. That’s why making an office ‘noise-proof’ starts with a sophisticated analysis.”

Mensura helps you take a stand against noise

A VDU-based work risk analysis helps you clearly work out where the acoustic bottlenecks are. Our ergonomist follows this up by drawing up a customised plan. That way, you keep your employees healthy and guarantee that your organisation stays on track. Discover more tips for an optimal workplace.