Breaking the sound barrier: The impact of office noise on the working day

Poor acoustics and a lack of privacy are affecting employee concentration

November 20, 2023

As the buzz returns to offices, efforts are underway to make sure noise doesn’t interfere with productivity.

Firms are calling staff back to the office with ever increasing frequency. It seems to be working, as JLL’s global research shows more of us are in the office more often, at least three days per week for 79% of office workers, up from 55% in 2022.

Yet against this increasingly buzzing backdrop, noise levels could be stopping companies from seeing the productivity boost they’re hoping for.

“Health and wellbeing have the biggest impact on an individual’s cognitive ability,” says Emma Hendry, People Experience Managing Director for JLL Consulting. “The physical, digital and built environment factors must combine to offer the best possible experience, or you’ll see productivity decline.”

JLL’s latest global survey ‘Is hybrid really working?’ found 58% of employees still consider their home environment superior for focused work, while 45% believe it better supports their overall productivity. More than a quarter cited office noise and inability to focus as a reason to work from home.

The increase in shared spaces could be adding to the hubbub. Many employers have already adapted workplaces to create more social and collaboration space, while 69% have moved to a mix of assigned and shared desks.

“Workers are now more demanding of the levels of comfort they expect from the office,” says Flore Pradere, Head of Research for JLL Work Dynamics, “and while collaboration is key, we cannot neglect the fact that people still spend over half their time on individual work.”

Too much of a good thing

Keen to create the workplace culture they feel has been missing with remote work, 91% of employers say in-person collaboration is their main return-to-office goal. “It gives people a sense of belonging to a larger community and purpose,” says Pradere.

Meanwhile, with AI changing the very nature of work, Hendry agrees the office will become more important than ever. “The human-centric side of work needs to step up and workplaces will play a vital role in helping us connect, convene, innovate and learn,” she says.

Yet the widespread adoption of video conferencing tools means virtual collaboration still accounts for almost a quarter of all time spent in offices, with at least half of these calls taking place at the workstation, potentially disturbing nearby colleagues.

Employees often just need to get their head down and get work done, and it seems managers are suffering the most.

“We found that Generation X (those aged 35-44) are more frustrated than Boomers or Gen Y & Z, with poor office acoustics and lack of privacy,” says Pradere. “They desperately need ‘me’ rather than ‘we’ spaces, to focus on the workload that comes with their managerial responsibilities.”

With managers stuck in the middle trying to keep the C-suite and their teams happy, Hendry says this cohort is also experiencing the most burnout. “Designing offices with a diversity of spaces suitable for different types of work is extraordinarily important in empowering individuals to be productive throughout their day,” she says.

This can include pods, phone booths and other enclosures, as well as using innovative sound-insulating furnishings and surface sprays, plus technical acoustic solutions such as ceiling baffles and wall cladding, to absorb noise.

JLL and EMOTIV’s science of work study discovered that while noise can be distracting, deathly quiet is also less than ideal. Soundscapes and white-noise generators may be common in offices of the future and some firms are already experimenting with these as they seek to create the perfect working environment.

Closing the productivity perception gap

JLL found 51% of employers rank productivity gains as a key reason for encouraging staff back. But understanding productivity in a hybrid context, what that looks like and how to measure it, remains a challenge, says Hendry.

Workforce analytics firm Visier found that compared to remote workers, in-person and hybrid employees were more likely to say workplace culture pressured them to prioritize performative tasks that visibly make them ‘look busy,’ above more valuable ‘meaningful’ work.

Pradere says employees must learn how to use the new workplace possibilities on offer, so it’s not just about being back in the office, but back for a purpose.

“It’s about purposefully managing tasks to suit your diary, so when I go on site, I don't work the same as when I work remotely,” she says. “But employers need to trust their workforce, allowing them scope to organize their schedules productively.”

Being clear about expectations of office etiquette can also help ensure workspace is used appropriately. “It comes back to the availability of diverse spaces, as well as designating certain zones for quiet work or confidential calls, to avoid disturbing colleagues,” Pradere says.

Hendry suggests HR, IT and facilities and workplace management teams must work together, to create fit-for-purpose strategies that support better performance.

“Instead of viewing elements in isolation, it’s about gathering data, listening to employees and understanding the big picture,” she concludes. “Reviewing and then acting on feedback will help create dynamic workplace experiences that enable employees to do their best work.” 

Looking for more insights? Never miss an update.

The latest news, insights and opportunities from global commercial real estate markets straight to your inbox.