THE QUIET REVOLUTION
The border between sound and noise is not always obvious. What disturbs, stresses and tires us varies from one person to another and also depends on how we feel on a particular day. So it’s all the more important not to keep quiet about how we perceive conversation, laughter and murmuring in the workplace. We need to talk about sound.
LISBETH FORSBERG, responsible for acoustics and environmental
labelling at Kinnarps, believes that ’sound ergonomics’ is a rather
neglected area. In our workplaces, but also in society at large. Even if a
huge amount of effort has gone into the architecture and interior design
of a new building, it is not uncommon for the whole experience to be
ruined by an unconsidered and annoying acoustic environment.
”Sound is an extremely complicated area. For one thing, it involves
advanced physics. For another, sound isn’t something we can touch or
see, which means it’s easy to forget. So most people probably don’t think
about the acoustic environment that surrounds them, but we know that it
nevertheless affects health, well-being and ability to perform.
SOUND AFFECTS PERFORMANCE
Kinnarps was a pioneer in sound ergonomics – measuring sound in
the workplace to be able to create better acoustic environments. The
development took off during the 1990s, and in recent years awareness
of sound has increased considerably.
”I think technological development, which means that we are working
more flexibly and in open landscapes, has pushed the acoustic environment
up the agenda. At Kinnarps we have worked with colleagues in the
industry to develop joint standards for measuring sound absorption in
Forsberg points out that there are laws regarding noise which is
damaging for people’s hearing, but in the case of sound which is ”only”
annoying, the limits are fuzzier.
”We know that sound greatly affects our ability to perform, that it can
cause stress, headaches and concentration problems, but also physical
pain in the shoulders and neck. At the same time, sound is obviously inevitable
in our workplaces. In fact it can also be perceived as a positive
thing that our colleagues discuss, laugh or play music.
So total silence isn’t always necessarily best. Not all sound is noise.
And in fact there are some sounds that we want, and need, to hear as
well as possible.
”What we perceive as annoying is really subjective. We all have different
sensitivities. It can also vary from day to day. If we’re tired, or stressed,
or have a work task that needs a particularly high concentration level,
a colleague’s laughter or phone conversation can annoy us more than
usual,” says Forsberg.
SHUT NOISE OUT
So, how can we create a good acoustic environment? Since sensitivity
to sound can vary between people, days and work tasks, a flexible
environment with a number of different soundscapes is best.
A good way to start is to enlist the help of an expert who will analyse the
link between work processes and the environment, suggest how unnecessary
disturbances can be eliminated and what other sound absorbers
might be needed. This includes both specially-designed products such
as desk screens, screen walls and wall-rail systems of various kinds,
and looking at the whole environment to find a good balance by using
natural absorbers such as curtains, carpets and furniture.
”My advice is always to start with a basic furnishing that you can then
adjust when the premises have come into use. It’s really only then that
you know what it sounds like. The advantage of screens, apart from the
fact that they dampen sound, is that they also make the office flexible
and adaptable to new requirements,” says Forsberg. It is especially
important to screen off machines and areas that make a noise, hum or
just have a slightly raised sound level, such as printers, lifts, walkways,
canteens and reception areas. Screens between workplaces dampen
sound in an office landscape, without sacrificing the advantages of
increased closeness and communication. Separate rooms for shorter or
longer meetings also contribute to a better acoustic environment.
”You can also affect some things with your behaviour. If you’re going
to have a lengthy telephone conversation, you can move away a little.
Remember, too, that we have a tendency to talk on the telephone with
a louder voice than necessary. A quiet conversation is obviously less
annoying than a loud one, says Forsberg.
A QUIET REVOLUTION
A lot can be done with the acoustic environment if we only notice it
and become aware of how it affects us. Best of all, of course, is if the
architect knows about sound and plans the acoustic environment at the
stage of designing the building.
”I’ve come across quite a few environments where the acoustics were
completely forgotten during construction, and it can be really difficult to
make and mend afterwards. That’s why it’s so important to raise awareness
of sound and how it affects us,” says Forsberg, adding:
”I can see a lot of positive signs that things are developing in the
right direction. There’s something of a quiet revolution under way.”
A FEW WORDS
WHY DO SOUNDS ANNOY ME MORE ON
Sensitivity to sound is individual and can also vary
from day to day depending, for example, on how tired
or stressed we are. Work tasks that require high
levels of concentration can also make you perceive
sound as annoying.
HOW DOES ANNOYING SOUND AFFECT ME?
It affects your health and your ability to perform. It can
cause stress, headaches and concentration problems,
but also physical pain in the shoulders and neck.
WHAT CAN I DO MYSELF TO ACHIEVE
A BETTER ACOUSTIC ENVIRONMENT?
Talk more quietly on the telephone; you will be
heard anyway. Move away if you are going to have a
lengthy meeting. Notice and take account of how your
colleagues perceive the acoustic environment. Turn
towards the person you are talking to, so that they
can hear you better.
I GET ANNOYED BY THE SOUND OF THE
PRINTER AND THE LIFT. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Suggest that areas with high noise levels should be
screened off. Everyone will appreciate it. Screens can
also create separate spaces in an office landscape.
HOW IS SOUND AFFECTED BY DIFFERENT
Soft, porous materials such as curtains, textile-covered
furniture and carpets absorb sound. On the
other hand, harder surfaces such as wooden floors
reflect sound. So in a room with very hard surfaces,
sound is more annoying and can have an echo effect.