With open plan office layouts now accounting for 54 per cent of UK workspaces , Paul Campbell, Commercial Sector Manager at British Gypsum, how excessive noise can impact business productivity and explains how specifiers can create a more effective working environment.

Although open plan offices can facilitate ways of working to enhance creativity and boost team building, they can also lead to an increase in background noise and sound reverberation, thanks to the lack of walls and cubicles combined with the hard surfaces of the furniture and often uncarpeted floors.

The result is often excessively high noise levels and a significant impact on employees’ health and wellbeing.

Acoustics and wellbeing
The effect of high noise levels in the workplace has been well researched, with studies showing a loud environment can have a negative impact on workers’ ability to retain vital information, affecting concentration levels, productivity and work quality.

Furthermore, it can lead to feelings of stress and fatigue in employees , increasing the risk of absenteeism, while businesses can feel the impact through increased staff turnover thanks to poor job satisfaction. Clearly then, preventing noise from reaching these levels is vital for businesses to protect their staff and their bottom line.

What levels are right?
According to the UK Department of the Environment, a typical office generates sound levels of 54 A-weighted decibels dB(A) or more – well above the recommended level of 45 dB(A) , which researchers say allows speech to be masked, ensuring privacy, without affecting colleagues’ concentration.

However, despite the known impacts of noise within an office space, they are some of the least regulated areas of the UK built environment in terms of acoustic performance. What’s more, the above guidelines are just that, with current Building Regulations not including any requirements for acoustic performance in commercial buildings beyond a minimum level of sound attenuation between floors. While this may offer businesses the freedom to do as they wish with their properties, it does increase the risk that the design will be developed without considering the subsequent acoustic impact.

Considerations
The key consideration for specifiers is to understand exactly how each area will be used, as many offices are split into different spaces, with each zone requiring specialist systems to control the transfer of noise. For example, spaces used for group discussions will need to be designed in a way that minimises reverberation, to maintain speech intelligibility and stop excessive noise from reaching the rest of the office. A meeting room however will require additional sound insulation to ensure privacy.

Choosing the right solutions
Specifiers must ensure they select interior construction solutions that both improve the overall acoustic performance of the office and help achieve levels of noise control appropriate for each space’s intended function. However, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration, such as the durability and flexibility of a material, which will keep maintenance costs low and allow easy changes to be made to the office’s layout if required. To support specifiers in creating suitable interiors, manufacturers of construction materials are increasingly turning to evidence-based design to develop new solutions. Research into the effect of high noise levels in office spaces, for example, has played a key role in the creation of British Gypsum’s high-performance Eurocoustics ceiling tile range, which offers class A sound absorption as standard, and works to reduce reverberation times within offices to keep background noise to a minimum, aiding worker concentration.

Furthermore, the range provides A1 reaction to fire and 30 minutes’ fire resistance, providing added benefits for building owners, while tiles that offer increased durability and washability to help reduce maintenance and cleaning needs, cutting long-term costs for businesses.

British Gypsum also provides a wide range of solutions that enhance acoustic performance and provide other benefits, such as internal partitions and external walls, to create an effective and robust workspace for occupants. In using specialist materials, specifiers can ensure office spaces remain flexible to meet business needs, while supporting employee health and wellbeing.

Although office environments are constantly evolving, when renovating these spaces organisations need to ensure the acoustics are being taken into account. By seeking expert advice from product manufacturers like British Gypsum, specifiers can source solutions that ensure spaces offer the best environment for workers and have a positive impact on the business too.

  1. Making the Business Case for Wellbeing, July 2014, British Council for Offices
  2. Performance, fatigue and stress in open-plan offices, October 2012, Jahncke and Halin
  3. Noise in Office Environments: Its Effects and Means to Control It, June 2011, 
  4. Acoustics at Work Noise, 2010, 
  5. Department for the Environment Masking speech in open-plan offices with simulated ventilation noise: Noise-level and spectral composition effects on acoustic satisfaction, 2002, Veitch et al

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