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.”

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 our products.”

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.

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 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.”