Safe and sound return to the workplace
Safe and sound return to the workplace with office acoustic design
As the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight, Ben Hancock, Managing Director at Oscar Acoustics discusses how the design of office space is being re-invented to welcome employees back into the workplace safely.
The threat of COVID-19 may be diminishing, but new ways of working are here to stay. In line with ongoing protocols for hygiene and social distancing, the design and layout of millions of square metres of office space are being rethought across the country as employees are counting on their companies to help them back to work safely.
Pictured: Office acoustic design with SonaSpray K-13 in Radius Payment Solutions. Credit to Space Invader Design, Overbury & Andrew Smith SG Photography.
Re-inventing office space post pandemic
“Companies will inevitably review their workplaces – office and home, physical and virtual – because of their ongoing work-from-home experiments,” say property experts Cushman & Wakefield. Their report, The Future of the Workplace, suggests changes will give offices a new purpose as a destination for innovation, collaboration and learning, and will need to be adapted to reassure when it comes to employee safety on site.
Worries about the dangers of the workplace have eased thanks to the vaccine rollout but fears and anxiety will remain for some workers, especially as we hear reports that similar viruses in the future cannot be ruled out.
Modern office trends affecting acoustics post-Covid
Where voice projection in enclosed spaces has become a concern post-pandemic, one of the biggest challenges employers face is how to safely distance their employees from one another. With barriers becoming synonymous with protection, a rise in cubicle-style offices, modular pods within open-plan spaces, tactile-free walkways and screen partitioning desks is likely. But these may bring negative impacts due to the hard surfaces reflecting sound and reducing speech intelligibility. Without adequate acoustic treatment, an office can quickly turn into an unnecessarily stressful environment, directly compromising employee comfort. Navigating this problem without causing colleagues to have to raise their voices and risk potential transmission, will become imperative in safely reintroducing staff back to the workplace.
Office acoustic design is vital for success
Noise has proved to be a risk factor for physiological and psychological health. Creating a high-quality acoustic environment for people at work should therefore remain a key health and safety consideration. Savills found that 39 percent of UK workers said their workplace had a positive impact on their mental health (up from 33 percent in 2016), while 34 percent said it was good for their physical health (up from 25 percent in 2016). As a result, there is a growing trend in the architect and interior design community to create workspaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also provide a calm and inviting environment for future inhabitants through office acoustic design.
Reducing noise in collaborative spaces
Often, there is no escape from the impact of noise on occupants in an open-plan office. This gets worse in offices that lack flexible design and private breakout spaces, leaving occupants feeling confined to their workstations. What’s clear is that open-plan layouts will need to change this year.
Fortunately, acousticians have long been aware of this issue and as a result, developed guidelines for acoustical comfort in such spaces. There is also a shift to design buildings around the people using them, rather than designing a building, then expecting people to use them productively. Emerging standards such as the FIS Guide to Office Acoustics and WELL Building Standards are proving useful. As people return to the workplace and shared spaces, they will need to be reassured that their health and wellbeing have been given priority.
Hybrid reality implications for the office spaces
We’re envisioning a hybrid reality in the next phase of the workplace where there’s a merging and blurring of the elements of home and work in each physical place. Physical office spaces will accommodate fewer people at one time, as employees rotate between home and office. In this model, the pressure will be on the interior office acoustic design and ensuring there is adequate sound absorption to minimise the build-up of noise as collaboration happens in person and virtually.
Sound advice for flexible workspaces
I recently took part in the RIBA Journal PIP Health & Wellbeing webinar and had the opportunity to present the latest thinking on this issue. From the event, it was clear that developers, building owners, and employers are looking for ways to protect the people who spend time within their four walls. While offices are being re-configured there is a great opportunity for them to stop a hidden health crisis and ramp up productivity by focusing on office acoustic design.
SonaSpray architectural acoustic finishes, for example, allow designers to create calm and inviting spaces that ensure working practices do not involve the need to shout to be heard. SonaSpray allows complete flexibility with Cat A and Cat B configuration allowing for dividing structures such as office pods to be brought in without disrupting the acoustic spray finish on the ceiling above.
Monitoring noise levels
With the rise in open-plan offices, employers are increasingly looking at acoustic design to keep their people safe and increase productivity. But, there are still companies that are unaware of the impact noisy workplaces can have on their employees, which could potentially impact on their bottom line.
Employers have a legal obligation to protect their workers and could be lining themselves up for future claims if they do not take the issue seriously. We are making progress, but there is still a lot of education required around the health impacts of excessive noise and poor acoustic quality in the workplace. Facing up to the issue is an important first step. It’s time to monitor, find solutions and turn down the noise.