Guest Blog: Is silence really golden? How some noise may actually help productivity

By Clare Bailey, Director, Savills commercial research

It’s a common belief that we need absolute silence to maximise concentration. This is ingrained into us from childhood, from every test or exam we’ve ever taken. When we need to focus we’ve been told silence is best. Yet, as we enter the workforce, we are constantly surrounded by noise. However, businesses and developers have started to recognise the need for quieter spaces, but rarely do people choose to work in them constantly. Now, as people work from home because of Covid-19, and I’m going mad from the quiet, I’m wondering how important is noise to our productivity?

There’s no denying that noise levels are high on the workplace agenda. There’s a clear correlation between the importance of noise levels in the workplace and how satisfied employees are. Savills What Workers Want survey found that 83% of employees rate noise levels as highly important but only 47% are highly satisfied with current levels, suggesting that our offices are too noisy for most people.

A large office often has a noise level of about 60 decibels: more than enough to cause significant distraction. Even normal office sounds – phones ringing, conversations, typing – affect us physically, from our cognitive functions to the rhythm and rate of our hearts.

But during the current time, we are reminded of how important socialising is — both physically and mentally — whatever our personality types. So how do we find the right balance of noise in the workplace? Whilst open-plan offices are seen as a more collaborative and social space, there’s little research to support this notion. In combination with the business cost of interruptions, evidence shows they decrease the volume of face-to-face interaction and increase electronic interactions.

Businesses need to provide flexible spaces for different tasks and personality types. We need to strike a balance between providing social and collaborative spaces, but also quiet spaces with fewer interruptions. The introduction of different work settings within modern offices, including booths and quiet rooms, are measures that can improve the user experience. Yet we also need to question whether open-plan architecture is the best design for productivity and performance — are there other design options we should be considering? 

New demands may also emerge as people become more comfortable with different working environments. Because of Covid-19, we have seen a dramatic increase in home working. As a result, we may see increased demand from staff for the introduction of smaller, more home-like architecture as a method to create quieter yet vibrant working environments.

One idea to improve productivity is to consider the type of sound in the office. We need to have a better understanding of noise. Sound can negatively and positively affect us, and help us work better with less stress. Absolute silence can be uncomfortable for most people, but connecting the sounds of water and birds are thought to bring a range of benefits; psychologically, physically, cognitively and behaviourally. Certain styles of classical music are also proven to assist with brain function and performance, and are often played in public spaces to address anti-social behaviour, with Transport for London implementing this as far back as 2008 in some busy stations.

What’s clear is that we’ve seen increased demand for office spaces that can support our health and wellbeing, enabling a rich social environment but also providing spaces people can feel comfortable and work easily. However, we also need to move past the idea of an ideal as no design can meet all of our needs. The better objective is to acknowledge our similarities, our desire for happy, healthy, productive lives, and to recognise our differences. Some people need noise and chatter to work, and some people need quiet.

Perhaps the ideal design is not a perfect, beautiful and quiet space but one that is a bit messier, sometimes noisy and sometimes quiet, a bit more like us? Human.

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