09/18/2023 • 6 min read

A Story of Noise

Noise is the #1 problem at work. Here’s how to solve it.

by Haworth, Inc.

Acoustic imbalance is one of the most pressing problems in the modern workplace. How did this issue arise, and how do we define acoustic balance? We've studied the science of sound and provided resources on how to create healthy soundscapes.

The Evolution of Noise – the Advent of an Indoor Existence

We believe that the volume of ambient noise has been increasing over the centuries. But our tolerance of noise has also changed. Noise has always been present in human life. 

Millions of years ago, our senses developed for an outside environment. Today we spend 90% of our time indoors. Looking back, we have not been working indoors for that long. Until the industrial revolution and the invention of lighting, work was done outside. Our senses have not had time to adapt to the indoor environment.

When Noise Was Not a Problem​

Until the early 19th century, the neighing of horses, the sound of their hooves on the paving stones mingling with the shouts of merchants in the city, the ringing of church bells, or the cries of animals in the countryside were not perceived as aggressive. Before the watch and the GPS, they were essential time and space markers. 

New Perception of Noise ​

The 19th century marked a turning point. As society modernized, the city changed, and so did its sounds. Newspapers replaced newsboys; slaughterhouses left city centers; towns were re-developed, and their streets widened, diluting and standardizing noise.  

When Noise Became Unbearable​

Industrialization introduced new sounds from machines and engines. ​

The relationship to noise also changed. Hygiene and calm became the new norms; noise became a social marker. The elites tried to keep their voices down and to speak softly. The upper class redesigned their homes to preserve their need for privacy, creating rooms for children, for example. Even the street noises were enemies. The upper class wanted to eliminate the sounds they considered unbearable from the city. ​

Sounds of Progress​

In the 20th century, the rise of the service economy brought its share of keyboard clatters, printer noises, phone rings and chats in wide-open spaces. ​

Escape the Noise​

In the second half of the 20th century, leisure activities developed, accentuating the search for calm among an ever more urban population. But the new sounds of jackhammers or the neighbor's television were disturbing. 

Silence is Golden​

Today, the fight against noise pollution has become a daily battle. Houses are soundproofed, and people buy insulating headphones to work in open spaces. ​Acoustics are one of the most pressing problems in the workplace today. According to Leesman, 33% of workers are not satisfied with noise levels in their offices.

Quiet Time, Good Time​

Over the past twenty years, digital noise was added to the ambient roar. Constantly connected, we are surrounded by noise everywhere. Should we avoid it at all costs? Not for sure. The American novelist George Foy, the author of Zero Decibels, left New York to find total silence. He finally found it in a totally deaf room where he couldn't stay for more than an hour. "Nobody really wants absolute silence," he concludes. "You need to make sure you give yourself quiet times to escape the noise around you from time to time." However, you must have the opportunity to do so.

Acoustic Comfort is a Core Element of Quality of Life at Work

However, even though offices can be noisy, the perceived discomfort is not fundamentally about decibel levels, as it is on construction sites or in school canteens. 

We should better refer to the employees' experience in the office as a soundscape or acoustic journey. The perception of sound as pollution in open spaces is related to the fact that those spaces have not been designed for people.

The disturbance is due to conflicting use of the office, as noise stands at the intersection of the public and private spheres. If you can move to another room that better fits your needs at the time, you will not be disturbed. 

As noise pollution has increased, research on the negative effects of noise on health has increased as well. The WHO describes noise as an "underestimated threat than can cause a number of short- and long-term health problems," including "poorer work and school performance." 

Most employees are not satisfied with the acoustic performance of their workplaces. Unsatisfactory noise levels cause productivity to plummet. This productivity loss is evident in both individual and collaborative work. The evidence is clear: people need well-balanced acoustic environments in order to do their best work. 

Get Our Acoustic Design Guide

Find inspiration, trends, considerations and tips for acoustically balanced office spaces in our Acoustics Design Guide.

Acoustic Requirements in Leading Certification Platforms  

This need for good acoustics in healthy interior spaces is recognized by leading interior certification platforms. Acoustics is included in both the LEED and WELL rating systems. While there is not a one-size-fits-all acoustics solution, a thoughtful mix of Haworth acoustic or architectural products will gain you credits on these rating systems. Most importantly, these acoustic measures will make the people in your workplace happier.

The most effective workplaces provide a landscape of various settings that are tuned to different frequencies. With a good range of settings, most people will find a place that suits their workstyle and acoustic preferences. Be sure to contact a professional certified in these rating systems to find the right solution for your space.  

Acoustics in WELL

WELL includes Acoustic Performance as one of its seven Action Areas. Limiting background noise is the first action area in WELL’s Acoustic Performance category. From a product standpoint, background noise levels can be mitigated by reducing reverberation time and by enclosing noisy conversations to keep the sound from travelling. Reverberation time can be managed by adding absorptive products to the floorplate, like upholstered soft seating, foam poufs, and absorptive planters, which have the added benefit of bringing some biophilia to the space. From an enclosure perspective, enclosed booths for individuals or teams can be added to the floorplate, ensuring conversations are kept contained. 

Acoustics in LEED 

LEED includes Acoustic Performance as a major component of its Indoor Environmental Quality category. LEED provides several routes to treating spaces acoustically. One route considers reverberation times and provides targets for various types of spaces, including open-plan offices. Reverberation time in open-plan offices can be addressed through upholstered soft seating, absorptive planters, acoustic dividers, rugs, and ceiling treatments. 

Managing Workplace Acoustics

Haworth's acoustics knowledge series details the essential techniques for managing sound.


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