Sounding the Alarm – Don't Let Your Workplace Soundscape Fall on Deaf Ears

Many leaders talk about workplace trends, but there is one invisible trend that has a big impact on performance and satisfaction: SOUND.
Creating a workspace with the right soundscape can be a challenge. A space that's too loud can be distracting, but a space that's too quiet can feel isolating. The sweet spot, a balance between the quiet of a library and the buzz of a coffee shop, is where collaboration, engagement, and individual work thrive.

Since the evolution of the open office, sound and noise have become a prominent component in the workplace conversation. No pun intended. From their experience working with hundreds of clients from a variety of industries, the NKF Global Workplace Strategy & Human Experience team has identified four categories of spaces needed in today’s work environment.

  1. Group workspace where a broad segment of the workforce can gather and work together – think large conference room.
  2. Team workspace for smaller groups of 2-6 to meet.
  3. Individual workspace where one person can focus and work alone.
  4. Communal space such as kitchens and break rooms, where employees can network and socialize.

Every work ecosystem needs at least one of each of these elements. Each of these elements demands different acoustics, meaning there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for sound in today’s workplace.
After running experiments at a variety of locations including offices, coffee shops, and university libraries, the Newmark Workplace team developed a scale for noise levels that align with work modes including collaboration, group work, teamwork and individual-focused work. Based on the research, the team can measure changes in noise levels and use those readings to predict how collaborative or concentrative the space can be.
The team found that successful collaborative space is somewhere between the level of a restaurant and a coffee shop, while focused work is best performed in a space louder than a library but quieter than a Starbucks.
The team uses sound meters to record decibel levels to determine the level of noise in the current space and compare that to data from workspaces where the work modes are successfully supported. They can measure the level of face-to-face collaboration by measuring the sound level and comparing it to their benchmarks.
One surprising finding the team has observed is that many of the open spaces created today are too quiet.  While this might seem counter-intuitive, once the cubicle walls come down, many groups get quieter because the impact of noise is more noticeable and there are visual cues to keep interruptions to a minimum.
Once the space is evaluated, the team works with clients to tailor the sound levels to support the types of work and behaviors that contribute to a productive work ecosystem. The team uses white noise to balance the ambient noise levels - which can serve to reduce the impact of distracting noises by blending them into the background.

While white noise is one tool to foster a focused workspace, creating an alternative location for concentrative work is another strategy that can be very effective. My team and I see the need for the space to focus as one of the biggest trends and one of the biggest requests from employees that we survey.
Designating a place in the work environment for concentration - a quiet car – gives employees a refuge to go to when they need to get some heads-down work done. My team defines the “quiet car” as a place in the office where cell phones, conversation, and distracting noises are controlled. The concept has been well received and the team is implementing it across a wide range of client types. 

Another trend that effects the soundscape is the increased use of voice recognition in our daily lives. We don’t just write on computers anymore, we also talk to them—and they’re starting to talk back. How do we create engaging workspaces where we can concentrate but also collaborate more using technology? Stay tuned to this blog for more about integrating technology into the work ecosystem.
There's little argument that designing the right soundscape for your workspace can be a challenge. Balancing technology, white noise, and quiet cars – it can be difficult to find the right mix for your organization. It all comes back to one goal: making sure employees are productive and collaborative. This is the goal that drives the Workplace Team at Newmark Knight Frank as we continue to optimize spaces for our clients.

Roy Abernathy
Executive Vice President, Global Workplace Strategy & Human Experience

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