Is noise in the workplace a good thing?

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What bothers people most about their workplace? After years of asking that exact question, the answer is often noise disruption. And not just any noise – it’s other people’s voices.

People are quick to blame their environment, particularly when the office is open plan. But if employees can’t do their job properly, we should fix it.

Solid walls work, but for most businesses, open space is here to stay.

The economies and flexibility are irresistible, so people try to physically reduce noise with acoustic baffles, soft furniture, and sound-absorbing ceilings.

But it doesn’t work, because the more silent the space, the more disruptive the conversation next door.

A quiet office can be much more challenging than a noisy one, because a certain level of ambient noise is actually very helpful.

Planes, trains and cars are noisy, but we can still read a book, write a letter or even sleep. A noisy restaurant can be a perfect place for a private conversation.

The problem is not decibels, but the distracting clarity of discernible speech.

A confusion of voices at a crowded reception is not distracting, but the sound of one person on the phone in a train carriage can make life impossible.

The same applies at work.

In order to concentrate around others, we need their words to be dissolved into an acoustic soup.

Now, thanks to technology, we have another way to control noise.

We can move away. We can be free of the fixed telephone and paper records.

Organisations are learning about a very powerful benefit of communal space, beyond just the cost savings. It allows collaboration, team work, knowledge sharing, and personal interaction. We are in the middle of an incomplete revolution which inverts the old office model of a central production space with meeting rooms around the periphery.

A new convention is evolving which places interactions centre stage, with ancillary spaces for focused work around the edges, therefore giving people choice about where they prefer to be. The configuration of space looks similar, but the functions are reversed.

This design recognizes that you can find isolation in many places, including your home, airport lounge, or a nearby cafe, but you can only rub shoulders with your colleagues at work – and that is rapidly becoming the primary purpose of the workspace.

Unstructured and creative conversation is the lifeblood of a knowledge economy, but people need to have choice about joining in.

£ Steve Gale is head of strategy at workplace design firm M Moser Associates.

Organisations are learning about a very powerful benefit of communal space, beyond just the cost savings. It allows collaboration, team work, knowledge sharing, and personal interaction. We are in the middle of an incomplete revolution which inverts the old office model of a central production space with meeting rooms around the periphery.

A new convention is evolving which places interactions centre stage, with ancillary spaces for focused-work around the edges, therefore giving people choice about where they prefer to be. The configuration of space looks similar but the functions are reversed.

This design recognises that you can find isolation in many places, including your home, airport lounge, or a nearby cafe, but you can only rub shoulders with your colleagues at work – and that is rapidly becoming the primary purpose of the workspace.

Unstructured and creative conversation is the lifeblood of a knowledge economy, but people need to have choice about joining in.