Workplace noise

A new sound control product for offices: Soundsticks

Photo credit: Soundsticks by Offecct

By David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Casja Carlson, writing for online architecture and design magazine, Dezeen, tells us about designer Andrea Ruggiero’s noise-reducing Soundsticks, which she says are a “free-standing alternative to acoustic panels, made from leftover materials for Swedish furniture manufacturer Offecct.” Carlson says that this new product has been lab-tested, but I couldn’t find any lab reports to verify the claims about reducing office noise. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see European designers actually tackling the office noise problem—it’s considered an important problem in the EU.

Basically, the most important way to reduce office noise is to add absorptive surface materials, starting with the ceiling. Yes, the ceiling is the most important surface, not the floor. But dividers—including acoustical curtains—can play an important role too.

What most architects and interior designers do not know is that it’s quite easy to calculate how much sound absorptive material to add, and where to add it. But they might need to hire an acoustics engineer to run those calculations for them. It’s definitely not a guessing game—it’s completely predictable. So a designer can actually consider a wide range of solutions that are available now, including Soundsticks, to get to a level of acoustical comfort that is suitable to the kind of work being done in an office space.

My point is this: There’s a growing range of options available to designers to achieve acoustical comfort, so there’s no excuse anymore for continuing to ignore the problem of noise in open offices. It’s not a mystery, it can be fixed. And people are more productive and happier in spaces where acoustical comfort has been consciously designed in.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Open offices spread noise and COVID-19, too

Photo credit: fauxels from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Open plan offices have been fashionable amongst corporate leaders for decades. Why? Not because people like working there; not because people are more productive in them. The real reason executives love open offices is because they’re cheap and changeable at a moment’s notice.

Seriously. Was anyone really fooled by the fashionable designer chairs and by managers’ enthusiastic talk about “teamwork” and “collaboration”? But now there’s the added problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 among people working closely together in those very spaces.

I did some work, including some research, for the U.S. General Services Administration a few years ago on the long-ignored noise problem in open offices. That helped convince office planners that many people really DO NOT LIKE working in open offices—indeed they’re LESS productive there. But it took the GSA–the nation’s largest provider of office workspaces for civilians–to convince the corporate world that the noise/distraction problem is really serious and happy talk from senior leaders doesn’t make office workers more productive.

Now this year—in just the last couple of months—we’ve all become aware of the long-ignored problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 in offices, classrooms, clubs, restaurants, etc.

So if you see/hear someone talking loudly across the room at your open office, keep in mind that they’re not just annoying you, they’re spreading germs too.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Companies urged to hire “Chief Sound Officers”

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

My first reaction to this article by Frank Fitzpatrick in Forbes advising companies to hire “Chief Sound Officers” was that the author’s tongue was firmly planted in his cheek. But no, he’s making some very valid points that corporate leaders could learn from: sound matters to business in lots of ways that deserve consideration.

As Fitzpatrick says, “You may not be in the sound business, but sound is in your business.” He notes that ambient noise level in retail spaces and workplaces has important effects on customer behavior and satisfaction, and on employee satisfaction and productivity.

I’m most taken by his discussion of hearables technologies coming to market now like the Apple iWatch with built-in sound meter. But there’s much more than that coming out of R&D labs to connect biometric data to wearable technologies on the assumption that informed consumers are more likely to be healthier too.

As Dr. Daniel Fink says: if it sounds loud, it is TOO loud. But if you’re used to ignoring noise, having a warning system on your wrist, a wearable device like an iWatch with a built-in sound meter, could be very helpful, and if enough people use it, that would be good for public health.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The future of work is…quieter?

Photo credit: K2 Space licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The 2020 pandemic has office designers dreaming up healthier, greener offices—don’t let them forget noise.

This article in NPR appeared in September as people were sending their kids to schools and dreaming of going back to work. While all of those office buildings have stood empty for many months, the people who design, build, and operate office buildings have been dreaming too about how to make offices healthier places to work: windows that open to let in fresh air, HVAC systems with good air filtration built into them, “green” plant-walls, touchless elevators and doors, doorless bathroom entries, and lots of hand-washing stations.

But nobody mentioned quiet and privacy–about wanting places where you can concentrate and work without disruption. This is not a new problem. And it certainly needs to be factored into anybody’s “office of the future” if the goal is to reduce unnecessary stress and increase the ability of “knowledge-workers” to do the thought-work they’re being paid for. I wrote about this with my health acoustics colleague Bill Cavanaugh for the U.S. General Services Administration a while back.

So if you’re dreaming of what kind of ideal working conditions you’d like to have when the world goes back to work in 2021, don’t forget that quiet and the sounds of nature are as important to your mental health and your motivation to work as windows and greenery and hand sanitizer stations!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

How to deal with noisy neighbors during COVID

Photo credit: Adrian Black licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

The subtitle of Kelsey Mulvey’s article in Real Simple on how to deal with noisy neighbors rang out to me: “Put the peace back in peace and quiet.” Noisy neighbors have long been a problem for people living in both private homes and apartment dwellings, but Mulvey notes that the stress of working from home during the pandemic may increase one’s need for greater quiet in the evening when one wants to relax. So how do we maintain the peace in an effort to seek quiet?

Mulvey’s article, based on advice from Erik Wheeler, a mediator at Accord Mediation in Vermont, focuses on how people can deal with noisy neighbors at a time when they are “on edge” and in need of advice that will not result in a screaming match or worse. He stresses that the individual making the noise may not be aware that sounds from their living space is intruding on a neighbor nearby, the person bothered by the sound must be ready to explain why some quiet is needed, and he or she must speak in a voice that is friendly and polite. Remember, Wheeler advises, have a conversation with your neighbor, not a confrontation. In New York City, some managing agents and landlords have sent out memos to dwellers urging them to make less noise during these difficult times which would facilitate requests to neighbors to “tone it down.”

I would also like to point out that the pandemic has increased the likelihood that neighbors working from home will experience noises from neighbors during the day that they had not heard before because they were at their workplaces. Then the pandemic came and those daytime noises, e.g. very young children running around and playing, were being heard for the first time. That is, there is a need to explain to neighbors that sounds from their dwellings are making it difficult to work.

On the other hand, people who are working from home for the first time have to realize that sounds they are now hearing during the day did not intrude on others before this pandemic. Now, their neighbors are being asked to alter established patterns of behaviors, and the behavior of their children. This will take even more understanding on the complainant’s part as well as patience.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Death of the open plan office?

Photo credit: Peter Bennets licensed under CC BY 3.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

If this pair of NPR articles are correct, the pandemic will cause the death of the open plan office. Now there’s reason to celebrate. Goodbye noisy co0workers and endless distraction!

What the articles suggest is the shift to working from home is going to be permanent for many former office workers. And it appears they are happy about it despite the obvious problems, like kids, pets, and so on.

It’s no secret that office workers have watched with horror as their workspace has steadily diminished over several decades so that the most fashionable, cutting edge offices, like those sported by Google and Facebook, now feature no closed offices at all–except for the C-Suite of course. Instead, there are row upon row of tables, often on casters, on concrete floors, just like factories. Even offices with cubicles have seen those cubicles diminish in size and the barriers between them evaporate.

So is working from home a perfect solution for everyone? Well, no. But if offices can’t bring back more than 50% of their staffs at any one time, that means that many
office workers can ditch the commute at least half of the time and work in their pjs (from the waist down, at most, if you do Zoom calls).

Get used to it. The future of office work has come home!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The future of work is not in noisy offices, NY Times survey says

Photo credit: Rum Bucolic Ape licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The future of work is not in cacophonous offices, a New York Times survey says. Pandemic-related working from home has accelerated a pivotal, even historic, change: people do not want to go back to their old noisy, politically-charged, distracting, disease-spreading offices. Many–60% according to the New York Times survey–say they’d rather continue to work from home as much as possible.

Could this be the next big driver of “knowledge-worker productivity,” i.e., no commuting, no irrelevant distractions, no pointless meetings in airless conference rooms
with management bringing in the boxes of donuts as a concession? If management buys into this change, hooray!

The whole open plan office fad has really been driven by two things: bean-counters trying to reduce the fixed costs of providing workspace for knowledge workers, while simultaneously satisfying the perceived need by managers enjoy seeing and “counting heads” of everyone under their control by simply looking across the open office floor. There’s been plenty of talk for decades about the advantages of “teaming,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “cooperation,” and “camaraderie.”

But the bottom line has really been about…the bottom line. Open plan offices save money by spending less on both fixed assets (buildings) and peoples’ needs for space where they can really focus and concentrate, and giving them instead a “hotel-style” chair amidst many others at picnic-style tables and shared kitchens with fully stocked refrigerators so they never need to leave.

Things are changing! Now what will corporations do with all of that empty office space?

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

6 in 10 workers complain about workplace distraction

Photo credit: Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

And what are the biggest culprits?  No surprise: noisy talkers, loud recreation, and open concept offices.

The article linked above references a study that was conducted in Canada, but there’s no reason to suspect that the experience of U.S. workers is any different.  In the end, any savings in real estate expense must be outweighed by lost productivity due to noisy, distracting environments.

But is the productivity loss measureable? If yes, is it significant?

Yes and yes. According to a survey by coworking company iQ Offices, fighting distractions leads to “up to two hours per day of lost productivity.”

Two hours per day per employee.  It adds up.

 

The cost of noise disruptions

Photo credit: Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Katherine Martinko, Treehugger, writes about how “blocking out the noise of the world” can make us more productive and creative.

Do you remember the Microsoft study on productivity and the cost of noise disruptions? I certainly do. Microsoft and several other big tech companies convened a meeting several years ago to discuss how to measure the productivity of knowledge workers. All the experts were there, led by some people from MIT.

I remember because they awarded my partner and me a contract to do further research (our original work had been for Apple Computer) on this subject and we presented it at a Human Factors and Ergonomics Society conference later.

Here’s the point in a single quote from the above article:

After being interrupted, it takes about 25 minutes to get back to the task you were working on, according to a Microsoft study. It can take even longer to get to a ‘flow state,’ alternatively called ‘deep work.’ These terms refer to the concentrated frame of mind you’re in when immersed in a task and time just seems to fly. It’s also when you do your best work.

What more do we need to know? The relentless shift toward open landscape offices has been underway for decades—because it reduces the cost of corporate office space. Basically, take away walls and doors and even cubicles and you can reduce the space-per-person well below 200 sq ft., resulting in huge savings and greater “flexibility.” But in the end, many people now work in essentially raw, unfinished, factory-like spaces with concrete floors, temporary tables, and virtually no privacy—and that, we are told, is supposed to result in what they call “teamwork.”

We’ve written about the bane of open offices before, but the fact that Microsoft weighed in on the issue is significant. We agree with the author of the above piece that it’s important, if not essential, to find and hang onto your own “bliss station”—a place where distractions are removed and you’re at your most productive when you need to be.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The cost of noise disruptions

Photo credit: Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Katherine Martinko, Treehugger, writes about how “blocking out the noise of the world” can make us more productive and creative.

Do you remember the Microsoft study on productivity and the cost of noise disruptions? I certainly do. Microsoft and several other big tech companies convened a meeting several years ago to discuss how to measure the productivity of knowledge workers. All the experts were there, led by some people from MIT.

I remember because they awarded my partner and me a contract to do further research (our original work had been for Apple Computer) on this subject and we presented it at a Human Factors and Ergonomics Society conference later.

Here’s the point in a single quote from the above article:

After being interrupted, it takes about 25 minutes to get back to the task you were working on, according to a Microsoft study. It can take even longer to get to a ‘flow state,’ alternatively called ‘deep work.’ These terms refer to the concentrated frame of mind you’re in when immersed in a task and time just seems to fly. It’s also when you do your best work.

What more do we need to know? The relentless shift toward open landscape offices has been underway for decades—because it reduces the cost of corporate office space. Basically, take away walls and doors and even cubicles and you can reduce the space-per-person well below 200 sq ft., resulting in huge savings and greater “flexibility.” But in the end, many people now work in essentially raw, unfinished, factory-like spaces with concrete floors, temporary tables, and virtually no privacy—and that, we are told, is supposed to result in what they call “teamwork.”

We’ve written about the bane of open offices before, but the fact that Microsoft weighed in on the issue is significant. We agree with the author of the above piece that it’s important, if not essential, to find and hang onto your own “bliss station”—a place where distractions are removed and you’re at your most productive when you need to be.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Healthcare Acoustics Project (HAP, a division of Quiet Communities Inc.), American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association and the American Institute of Architects. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA publication “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.