Workplace noise

How to motivate millennials to protect their hearing at work

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition doesn’t spend much time worrying about occupational noise because our focus is on protecting the general public from noise. Workers’ ears are protected by regulations drafted and enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and similar state agencies. Moreover, workers generally have health care for occupational injuries, and are compensated for work-related permanent damage (including hearing loss) by state-administered workers compensation systems. If occupational hearing loss is established, hearing aids may be provided for those with occupational hearing loss.

From time to time we will agree with the many observers who think that the occupational noise exposure limit–90 A-weighted decibels for 40 hours a week, 240 days a year, for 40 years, causing excess hearing loss in 25% of exposed workers–is set too high, but at least workers have that meager protection. There are no such protections for the public, and no compensation for hearing loss, either.

That said, we’re making an exception to share with you this well-written article in Occupational Health & Safety Magazine. It’s focused on preventing hearing loss in younger workers, but it provides good information for everyone who is concerned about their hearing.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

There’s a booming market for fancy noise-absorbing objects

Photo credit: SparkCBC licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Want to take a guess why? Yes, open offices. Sarah Kessler, Quartz, examines the world of open offices and the designers who try to fix them, like Aaron Taylor Harvey, the head of Airbnb’s internal architecture and interior design group. So what does Harvey do to control the din at Airbnb? His team hung “a series of banners set two feet apart and made out of recycled cotton” from the ceiling of a large open space, wrapped surfaces with “sound-absorbing panels that look like fabric wallpaper, and strategically placed sound-absorbing walls to separate areas of noisy collaboration from those with quiet focus.”

But these are new, cutting edge tech companies. They aren’t going to be satisfied with those beige fabric covered cubicle frames that traditional corporations use.  No, today’s designers are making the banners like those used at Airbnb with recycled denim. “[T]hey’re ideal for companies, like Airbnb, that want to be environmentally friendly,” writes Kessler. One company makes “sound-absorption panels that look like wood, and sound-permeable paint that can help disguise a panel as a piece of art,” while another “builds sound absorption into lamps, furniture, and room dividers.”

No doubt the cost of all these high-end fixes are cheaper than, say, providing a quiet space to each of Airbnb’s employees, but at what point do corporate executives and their bean counters decide that maybe the best option is to provide employees with an office where they can actually get their work done?

Open plan offices: Good or Bad? Harvard Business Review weighs in.

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

When Harvard Business Review (HBR) speaks, people listen, including those who sit in executive suites. A series of articles published in HBR about noise and distractions in open plan offices may be changing some minds. Reductions in productivity attributed to noise and distraction related to open plan designs may finally be getting the attention of corporate leaders.

Over the past several decades, open-plan offices became fashionable. If you didn’t like them, you’d be bucking a trend. Why did this type of office design become a hot topic in the executive suite? Three trends collided:

  1. “Sick-building-syndrome” became a serious, costly issue blamed on chemicals in carpets and paints, inoperable windows, and poor air circulation;
  2. Corporate leaders decided they had too much overhead (hint: expensive trophy headquarters and high end real estate); and
  3. The U.S. Department of Energy established a huge initiative to increase energy efficiency and cut costs.

Suddenly walls, carpets, fancy wood furniture, cubicles and even lightbulbs were dumped. Windows were re-opened. Dramatically branded front offices concealed cavernous, cacophonous, factory-like back offices — flooded with daylight and high levels of ambient noise. The related noise and distractions have been a growing source of complaints from workers ever since.

We wrote about this on February 16 after spending a decade working on the problem with the U.S. General Services Administration and several large corporations. And now HBR keeps writing about noise and open plan offices. So is it possible we may soon see a trend towards office designs that accommodate worker comfort, safety and, even, employee productivity? We believe it may be.

If you are working in an open-space plan or are a senior level executive concerned with employee productivity, this ongoing HBR series could help YOU. This subject has also attracted mainstream media, so maybe the boss is already listening?

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

One reason we don’t hear about “open schools” anymore:

Photo credit: missbossy

They’re noisy! Steve Drummond, NPR, looks back at education policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s which gave birth to the “Open Education” model (among other things). Under this model there were “[n]o whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” and often no walls. Wide open spaces prevailed.

Drummond visited one of the few remaining schools built with the open school concept in mind, Benjamin Orr Elementary School. The goal of the open school was to encourage collaboration (does that sound familiar?), but one glaring problem at open schools like Benjamin Orr is the noise. So the teachers there try to adapt by creating walls within the big open space. That’s not a surprise, because as Drummond tells us:

Historians say that’s pretty much why this open school design died out. Bottom line: Too loud. Too distracting. Teachers hated it.

Benjamin Orr Elementary School is going to be torn down and a new school built next door–a new school that will not be open (and will have better heating and cooling, too). But don’t despair.  Although the open school concept didn’t live up to its promise, one of the teachers Drummond interviews noted that “open education isn’t so much about the floor plan, but the way teachers work together and work with their students.”

 

We know open plan offices are an office worker’s nightmare, so what can we do about it?

David Sykes, vice chair of The Quiet Coalition, gives us a solution in his post about office noise and how to fix it. He writes about being part of a group that worked “with the largest provider of workplaces for office workers in America, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).” Sykes states:

GSA houses over 1,000,000 federal office workers in 2,200 communities across the nation, and they survey those office workers regularly about their working conditions. Consequently, if office workers are miserable and distracted, GSA knows about it. Based on over 20,000 survey responses, they learned that noise and lack of privacy were office workers’ biggest complaints.

Importantly, the GSA did something about it.  Namely, it commissioned “Sound Matters,” a guide that helps to address the “open landscape dilemma.”  Sykes adds that Harvard’s School of Public Health has started a research program called “Buildingomics” to understand the impact of “Indoor Environmental Quality” on office workers’ health and performance.

To learn how these resources can help you address workplace noise and distraction, click the first link for the full post.

Yet another article about the failure that is the open plan office:

Why Open Plan Offices Are Bad For Us. Bryan Borzykowski, BBC.com, examines the modern office worker’s nemesis, the open plan office. Borzykowski introduces us to Chris Nagele, a tech executive who adopted an open plan space because he thought it would encourage collaboration among his team members. But Nagele soon discovered that he made a huge mistake. Instead of a free exchange of creative ideas, Nagele found that everyone was distracted, productivity suffered, and his employees were unhappy, as was he.  And he wasn’t alone.

Borzykowski reports:

Professors at the University of Sydney found that nearly 50% of people with a completely open office floorplan, and nearly 60% of people in cubicles with low walls, are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. Only 16% of people in private offices said the same.

Sound privacy means noise.  Your neighbor’s phone call is noise to you, and your call is noise to him or her.  And in an open office, it’s possible to have lots of neighbors. No surprise then that in the U.S., where about 70% of offices are open concept, there is a growing backlash against them.  And there is research that backs up employees’ complaints.  Specifically, “that we’re 15% less productive, we have immense trouble concentrating and we’re twice as likely to get sick in open working spaces.”  That is, the reason employees hate open plan offices isn’t just a loss of status and exposure to a litany of minor nuisances. Rather, “we can’t multitask and small distractions can cause us to lose focus for upwards of 20 minutes.” That is, we can’t do our work.

In the end, the stated motivation for adopting open plan offices–to encourage collaboration–is a lie.  Many companies claim that motivation when the bottom line is that open plan offices are cheaper.  But even if encouraging collaboration really is the motivation, Borzykowski tells us that “we don’t collaborate like we think.”  Instead, he writes:

[I]t’s well documented that we rarely brainstorm brilliant ideas when we’re just shooting the breeze in a crowd. Instead, as many of us know, we’re more likely to hear about the Christmas gift a colleague is buying for a family member, or problems with your deskmate’s spouse.

So, what to do?  The obvious choice is to ditch the open plan office, but that isn’t easy to do after significant funds have been spent on a new space.  When the floor plan cannot be changed, some sort of accommodation should be made, particularly for jobs that require focus, like writing or coding.  Borzykowski reports that some companies “are experimenting with quiet rooms and closed spaces,” while others place sensors around the workspace to track noise, temperature, and population levels, allowing staff to “log on to an app [to] find the quietest spot in the room.”  Or maybe companies should bite the bullet?  According to Chris Nagele, leaving the open plan office behind resulted in his employees being happier and more productive.

Why You Need Less Noise for Work

and Your Health. Belle Cooper has written a very thoughtful piece on the problems with noise at work and play, and the importance of silence in one’s life.  On noise she writes:

Two types of everyday noise can be bad for us. One is excessive noise, such as the prolonged loud noise of being near an airport. The other is simply the distraction of general noise around us, such as conversations or interruptions from colleagues in the workplace.

The former may seem worse, but both can be detrimental to our productivity—and sanity.

Cooper lists a litany of horribles caused by exposure to chronic noise from traffic or airports, like high blood pressure, heart problems, and sleeplessness, but she also explores the effects of everyday noise on those of us not exposed to these chronic noise sources.  What is the effect on those of us who simply experience what she calls “general daily noise?”  She writes:

If you work in an open plan office, you’ll probably find [distraction and interruption] is an even greater problem. Ollie Campbell, CEO of Milanote and part of Navy Design’s multi-disciplinary team, says open plan offices come with their own implicit values. They make team members feel that disruption is acceptable, collaboration is the key priority, and serendipity is worth the interruptions it requires.

*      *      *

Distractions and interruptions are such a common part of our workdays, we don’t even think of them as excessive noise anymore. It’s often more obvious when we don’t hear the noise of distractions around us at work than when we do.. A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that knowledge workers have focus periods of just eleven minutes on average, in-between interruptions. As Campbell said, “if you need to focus, ‘work’ is pretty much the worst place you could be.”

So what can be done to reclaim some peace, to regain one’s focus and concentration?  Cooper suggests that we shut out both excessive/harmful noise as well as “the more general commotion of the modern workplace” so that we can create our best work.  And she’s armed with research that shows that silence doesn’t just relax the brain:

One study of mice found that listening to silence for two hours every day prompted the subjects’ brains to grow new cells in the hippocampus, which is related to our brain’s memory abilities. While new cell growth doesn’t always provide health benefits, in this case those new cells did become new, functioning neurons within the mice brains. In other words, silence could make you a little smarter.

Ok, perhaps that reaching a bit, but Cooper shares some anecdotal evidence that silent time helps us make better long-term decisions as well as spur creative thinking.  In the end, we can’t cocoon ourselves and block out all noise, but when we have the chance, Cooper suggests that we opt for silence.  Sounds good to us!

And what if they say no?

Thanks to the rush by corporate finance departments to embrace cheaper open plan offices (to encourage collaboration!), this sort of article is likely to pop up more often: Here’s exactly what to say to quiet a noisy coworker — without being rude.  Work is already fraught with potential pitfalls and misunderstandings, and thanks to open plan offices now you get to see whether this Business Insider advice delivers the quiet you crave or a new nemesis at work! So what does Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, “an etiquette and civility expert and the author of ‘Don’t Burp in the Boardroom,'” suggest?  This:

You’ll want to walk over to their desk and say something like, “You know, I have never been able to concentrate unless it’s totally silent. And I know that’s unrealistic … but can I ask you, for the next couple hours, while I’m working on this project, would you keep it down for me? I’d really appreciate it.”

Ok.  So what do you do the next day?

Here at Silencity we’d suggest punting to HR or someone higher in the food chain, especially if you don’t know the person who is making your work life hell. You’re not a psychologist (unless you are), and trying to get your work done in less than optimal surroundings is enough of a burden. If your employer puts you in a situation where confronting a noisy co-worker is inevitable, then surely your employer must have designed mechanisms for dealing with the problem.  So let the HR manager or your boss figure out how to quiet your noisy work neighbor.  That’s why they’re there.

 

If life is fair, the person responsible for the first open plan office

will spend eternity in his or her own special ring in hell. Whatever the initial motivation for the open floor plan–we recall it was to encourage “collaboration,” which must have been the word du jour at the time–many who followed this “innovation” only did so to reap cost savings. That open floor plans are and were unpopular with the worker bees was dismissed without serious consideration as finance departments and underperforming CEOs gleefully counted pennies (that would soon find their way to their bonus checks).

Sadly, this short-sighted and short-term attempt to shore up shaky financial reports is causing some very real problems.  As Amy X. Wang, Quartz, notes, “[s]tudies have found that lack of sound privacy is the biggest drain on employee morale, and that workers lose as much as 86 minutes a day to distractions.”  In fact, in the last year a flurry of articles have come out that acknowledge the very real costs of open plan offices.  So what will our corporate overlords do?  Will they call in the designers and reconfigure the office space?  Don’t hold your breath.  They will more likely send Wang’s article, “The complete guide to noise-canceling in open offices and other hectic spaces,” to the underlings and go back to surfing the web looking for their next unnecessary purchase.

As for Wang’s advice?  The usual: invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, download white noise apps, get a plant, go for a walk.  Saved you a click.

Link via Quiet Revolution: @livequiet.

Looking for a free professional grade sound level meter app?

Photo credit: NIOSH blog

Look no further: Introducing the new NIOSH Sound Level Meter App. Yes, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has just released a free sound level meter app for IOS (Apple) devices. Recognizing that “most of the apps on the market are oriented at the casual user and lack the accuracy and functionality necessary to conduct occupational noise measurements, NIOSH hearing loss researchers collaborated with an app developer, EA LAB, to create an iOS based sound level meter app that measures and characterizes occupational noise exposure similar to professional instruments.”

NIOSH has developed this app so that “workers around the world [can] collect and share workplace (or task-based) noise exposure data using their smartphones.” And once the data has been collected, “[s]cientists and occupational safety and health professionals could rely on such shared data to build job exposure databases and promote better hearing health and prevention efforts.”

NIOSH is making the app available to anyone who would like to download it. Click here to learn more about the app and for the link to download it at the App Store. NIOSH is looking for any and all feedback about the app and asks that you help them spread the word about this new tool for protecting workers’ hearing.