Living in the past
I used to work in a call centre cubicle back in 2015. My neighbours were a woman going through a difficult marriage whose 28 year old son lived at home and a man who recently got married and had a baby who had cholic and a father who lived with them and made their lives a misery. Directly behind our unit was the coffee machine and next to that, the water cooler. We sat in a 6 person ‘pod’, and I could tell you the personal details and problems of each of the people in my team. Each day I’d come into work in high spirits (ok, most days), but after a few hours, a couple of overheard private phone calls later – I wanted to bury my head somewhere.
Taking my 15 minute break, I would walk down corridor after corridor looking for a quiet place to drink my coffee and be alone, but that was impossible. There were no quiet rooms, no break-out areas – and only a cafeteria which was always filled to the brim with staff.
I found it hard to enjoy my job, and slowly but surely lost interest in the company completely.
This story could be told by over half of the UK’s population, I’m sure and although a lot has changed since 2015, sadly, a lot hasn’t.
My husband now works in a call centre too. He comes home and tells me about his day and I truly feel his pain. While they have their break-out areas, these are always full, they have their quiet spaces, where nobody is quiet – and he too can hear his neighbours’ ailments loud and clear from the ‘privacy’ of his pod. His company has recently had a fit-out and even though it appears that a lot has changed, acoustically, nothing has. Everything is just as loud, privacy is a jewel you can never find and bless him, if he could wear ear muffs at work he probably would!
The problem his company has, and I think a lot of them do – is that they still don’t see acoustic performances as a core issue. When an office has good acoustics, it contributes successfully to work performance and well-being in the workplace. Having speech privacy is essential for confidential interactions. Don’t underestimate the importance of sound. Although not visible, it is present. We just need to learn what to look for.
Here are some examples :
Workstation partitions – do they have acoustic absorption in the material and are they placed in front of the worker when they are seated? You may not think it, but low partitions with an acoustic absorption are far better than High cubicle partitions. Research shows that higher cubicle partitions block standing line of sight but provide small amounts of additional acoustical shielding. The problem is that because the visual privacy is increased, people tend to talk louder, thinking they have more privacy.
Conference Rooms – do the walls/ceiling/doors have high noise reduction co-efficiency (NRC)
Telephone calls/Conversations – staff usually have informal meetings or conversations directly above, or nearby where staff are taking calls and interacting with customers. Does your office have a sound masking system? Have you thought of enhancing your employee awareness of co-workers?
Office Doors – We all know that when a door is closed, conversations within are private right? WRONG! Conversations can only remain private if adequate measures have been taken in the construction phase to prevent sound from leaking around doors, through walls, through ceiling plenum, ducting etc.
Never assume that a closed-door conversation is confidential. It’s worth noting that sound is not measured on a linear scale — a sound 10dB louder is in fact twice as loud; 15dB louder is three times as loud. But the Sound Reduction Index measures the impact of soundproofing.
In reality this means:
– 25dB: Normal speech can be heard;
– 40dB: Loud speech can be heard but not clearly identified;
– 50dB and higher: Loud speech or shouting can only be heard with great difficulty.
To increase the acoustical design success of a project, the following advice by personnel, architects, project managers and contractors will help us to see sound.
Three ways to achieve acoustic comfort in the office
- Work patterns – Identify the balance of concentration and interaction among the workers in the office to help create zones.
- Speech Privacy – Identify the level of privacy required for the work.
- Behavioural change – support behavioural adaptations with mobile technologies, multiple work spaces, and policy.
- Behavioural protocols – develop protocols with the participation of the subject work group, aimed at reducing distractions and appropriate use of space use as well as training in awareness for co-workers.
- Zoning – After determining the work patterns, develop a layout strategy which will locate incompatible functions apart from each other. Locate conference and focus rooms convenient for interactive workers to “duck into” and to act as barriers between various work patterns. Consider elements such as file banks to further separate incompatible functions.
- Planning – Carefully consider the effect on neighbouring workstations when locating supporting activities such as copier rooms, coffee bars and entries to conference rooms where a queue could be anticipated – adjacent to large conference rooms, for instance.
- Furniture – Select furniture which complies with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certifications. The low partitions required will achieve the desired access to natural light and view while allowing occupants to be aware of other nearby workers. Where a work station partition is in front of the worker when seated at the desk, the noise reduction coefficient (NRC) of the partition should be .07 so that speech is not reflected backward when the worker seated at his or her desk speaks. Where possible, the layout should locate the desks so that workers will not be speaking directly “at” each other.
- Sound Absorbing Ceilings and Walls and Doors – Specify ceilings having a minimum NRC of 0.9 in open plan office areas and NRC 0.8 in meeting rooms and training facilities. In conference, meeting and training facilities, provide soundproof panels on 25% of walls with a minimum NRC of 0.8. Doors should be at least 40dB. Choose a hinged door instead of a sliding door; they typically have better seals that hold sound in – and keep it out – when they are closed.
- Sound Masking Systems – Specify sound masking systems, particularly in open plan office areas. Because there are so many types of masking systems available, it is important to be specific about your requirements. For example, some work areas are well suited for paging and music, desktop fountains etc, while others are not.
- Walls – Specify Sound Rated Wall Constructions that comply with Building and are subject to Pre-Completion Testing unless a Robust Detail construction is used.
Attention to the benefits of acoustics within an office environment has constantly been overlooked. If you think about how many hours a day you spend in an office environment, doesn’t it make sense that your attitude to work would mirror the environment? It impacts our lives and our mental health tremendously. Have a look around, SEE what you can hear. And whether you’re the administrator, clerk, manager or owner, do something about it today.