Tackling acoustic problems is challenging for many organizations. How do you know if you have issues with speech privacy and noise control? What should you do about it? When should you implement solutions? And how do you know if they’re working?
I’ve covered the how (see “It’s Worse than It Sounds”), what (see “The Acoustic Alphabet” and “A Beautiful Combination”) and when (see “The Band-Aid Philosophy”) in earlier posts, but the final question – assessing acoustic performance – remains. How do you answer it?
Hiring an acoustical engineer is a good idea. They have the tools to accurately assess measurable targets, such as speech privacy goals, and provide advice as to how to improve these markers. They can even model the outcome for you in advance of investing in solutions. But not everyone has the budget for a consultant, so here are five basic questions to ask yourself:
Can you clearly hear unwanted conversations?
A worldwide, decade-long survey of more than 65,000 people run by the Center for the Built Environment (CBE) at University of California, Berkeley, found that lack of speech privacy is the top complaint in offices. If you’re working in an open plan, it’s one thing to be able to overhear your immediate neighbor, but another to clearly understand a conversation happening a distance away from you. If your acoustic treatments are effective, you might be able to tell when someone’s speaking, but their conversation won’t be intelligible. If you’re in a private office or meeting room, those outside the room or in neighboring rooms shouldn’t be able to easily hear you – or vice-versa – even with the door open.
Are employees often staying late or coming in early?
Numerous studies show the negative impact poor acoustics has on concentration. Whether you’re talking about a 5 to 10% decline in performance as per research conducted by Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health, the 23 minutes the average worker takes to regain full concentration as noted by The Wall Street Journal, or even assume just a few minutes a day, it all adds up to the same thing. If employees are often coming in early or staying well into the evening, it might be because they’re distracted by noise during the day and simply can’t get their work done during regular business hours.
Are employees commandeering the meeting rooms?
Most employees still spend more than half their time on individual work that requires concentration, and another 20% on the telephone. If your acoustic treatments aren’t working, employees may be commandeering the meeting rooms…not to hold meetings, but in order to accomplish everyday tasks requiring concentration or privacy. Similarly, you might notice that employees prefer to use electronic media to communicate with each other, because they know they’ll be overheard during face-to-face conversations, compromising privacy and disrupting those around them.
Are employees often calling in sick?
As noted in ‘Wellness by Design’ (Building Design + Construction, September 2016), the Integrated Benefits Institute “estimates that health-related productivity losses cost U.S. employers over $225 billion annually.” Everyone has off days, but if your employees seem consistently unhappy about coming to work and the number of sick days if escalating, it could be due to the stress and fatigue caused by noise. Yes, this even applies to Millennials.
Are employees wearing headphones?
Are you often tapping employees on the shoulder and motioning for them to remove headphones so that you can speak with them? As a JLL Staff Reporter writes after reading a Harvard Business Review article describing the impact of headphones on workplace communication, “Whatever methods companies adopt to control sound, doling out headphones is not the solution. While these may block out noise, they also block opportunities for employees to connect, collaborate, or to learn what’s new in the organization….” What they’re listening to is likely to cause distraction as well. If your employees are using headphones, you should really revisit the acoustical design of your space.
And, of course, you can ask occupants if they’re happy with the workplace acoustics. If you’re working in a private office, you might be out of touch with what they’re experiencing (or, with today’s construction standards, you might know exactly what they’re talking about). Send out a survey, including specific questions relating to acoustics. Just ensure you’re prepared to do something about their response.
Next up: Why aren’t your acoustic solutions working?