Office noise and working in open plan

open plan officeIf you’ve been away on holiday over the Christmas period, some of you will have been returning to “full-on” office noise.

Often when I’m on holiday, I begin to use my hearing aids sporadically. Whilst it can result in lots of conversations starting with ‘What’s that?’, and ‘What did you say?’, I tell myself that I can usually get by.  Although I do end up putting them back in at some point for the sake of harmonious relationships.

Work is different. I just couldn’t cope without my hearing aids, and they’re a vital piece of equipment enabling me to do my job. However, after two weeks of relative solitude, walking back into the office can be a bit of a shock to the system.

It’s difficult to explain to people what ‘sound’ is like when you’re wearing hearing aids. It’s not like ‘hearing’ in the way I once experienced it, and you can’t simply filter out the important things from the background noise. Instead, everything is amplified and it can sometimes feel like you’re faced with a cacophony which requires some intense concentration to pick out and follow a conversation.

Working in an open plan, with a couple of dozen people on a busy day can seem especially noisy. Phones ringing, multiple telephone conversations, ad-hoc meetings and discussions at people’s workstations, keyboards clicking, printers printing; the sound emanating from all of these can sometimes end up feeling quite overwhelming.

On the other hand, on those days when there are few people around and the office is quiet, my hearing aids can be tricked into amplifying the quietest of sounds which can make the air conditioning sound like there’s a constant helicopter overhead. Office sounds are quite unique and whilst it doesn’t take long to get used to them again, it’s a real contrast to spending the day at home quietly reading or out walking and listening to a few birds and the wind in the trees.

It got me thinking about how best to cope with noise in an open plan office. I’m lucky in that our office has several small rooms that can be used for phone calls and impromptu conversations. If I have a phone call to make, I can book a room and then just put the phone on speaker. However, I’m conscious that some workplaces don’t have such luxuries and many people simply don’t have the option of slipping away from their desk that easily.

Noise solutions

By chance, I came across an article this week in the New York Times about new acoustic designs being incorporated into restaurants. They include the use of cedar, linen covered acoustic panels on ceilings and BASWAphon, a sound absorbing plaster. It really is fantastic news that the hospitality industry is taking this seriously.  I’ve had so many spoilt evenings, simply because the noise in a restaurant has been unbearable and makes conversation so difficult. It must also be really hard for the staff having to work there. However, it left me wondering why such ‘innovations’ and acoustic panels aren’t built in as a standard feature in open plan offices.  It has the potential to make working life much less stressful.

Have you experienced problems with office noise?

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Featured image adapted from  “TBS WF Open Office” by mrdorkesq, CC-BY-2.0.

One thought on “Office noise and working in open plan”

  1. One of my pet soapbox rants …open plan ! I really like the look of the clouds that have been installed at th Hearing Dogs office to absorb noise. Your article encapsulates all the issues I had working in open plan , glass everywhere environment. We had 7 floors of it with an atrium in the middle which looked fantastic but really difficult to escape the noise. Noone was allocated a desk as it was 1st come 1st served , so you could not position yourself to ‘ see’ people to enable Lipreading. The biggest hurdle was the meeting areas which were interspersed with the desk areas so none of my assistive listening devices could cope , it made me feel quite nauseaus and headachy by the end of the day . My worst day was needing to carry out a sensitive formal conversation with an employee on the phone , we booked a room on the quietest floor ( directors floor !) , put on loudspeaker so we both could participate , it was extra loud so I could hear and we were half way through when a very annoyed director stormed in to tell us to turn the noise down as everyone could hear ! Luckily he was the only one in but it just showed the ‘exciting, aesthetic ‘ design had not thought about what it might be used for ….it wasn’t just people like me that struggled to hear. If I am honest it was probably the advance of open plan that left me with very few places I could work easily with my hearing loss and all the strategies I had devised , I definitely needed an escape route so for a while I was able to book a work at home day where I could control sound levels , focus and be twice as productive …I would leave my HAs out as much as poss that day to get a respite from too much noise the day before. Bliss !

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