Acoustic comfort in the workplace

November 2019 | News

Acoustic comfort is one of the most influential aspects of workers' health and well-being. Along with air, water, light, movement, temperature, materials, nourishment, mind and community, is one of the ten concepts with which WELL v2 certification guarantees the health of people living in buildings.

It has been shown that exposure to excessive noise is directly related to health problems such as sleep disturbance, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, as well as learning and cognitive complications. This leads to increased irritability and stress levels, and a consequent decrease in work performance and concentration.

In offices, noise can come from different sources. From external noise pollution, from traffic or nearby construction work, to that generated inside by computers, printers, photocopiers or air conditioning/ventilation systems. But, without a doubt, the most annoying noise comes from other people's conversations or phone calls. When it fluctuates and contains information it is much more destructive than the continuous and 'with no content'. Without forgetting the Lombard Effect, or the involuntary tendency, very common in offices and public spaces, to speak louder in noisy environments in order to hear and be heard. It is therefore essential to analyse the nature of each of the sounds.

The creative and collaborative nature of the new ways of working has given rise in recent years to much more open and flexible offices, where acoustics are one of the main challenges. Spaces that combine concentration and collaboration environments, where, as in meeting rooms or individual offices, it is a question of achieving acoustic comfort.

From the architecture and construction of the building itself, to the layout of spaces, furniture or materials, everything can help to control noise levels, and improve the health and well-being of the people who work there. The solution is to offer a wide variety of environments that respond to all the senses, through a design that is not only aesthetic, but that offers instrinsically 'intangible' tools, such as acoustics, light and ventilation, essential to increase the creativity and commitment of its workers.

Although good quality façade elements and interior partitions, sealing gaps in connections and doors, and providing airspace between enclosed spaces, reinforce sound privacy and reduce noise, acoustic comfort is more than choosing good insulating materials, erecting walls or putting in doors. As well as trying to separate activities by their sound level, it is essential to offer different environments according to the type of work done or the mood of the user. If in meeting rooms or independent offices, a good enclosure and insulating materials can be enough, the challenge is much greater in open spaces.

The use of sound-absorbing materials, both in the form of dividing panels and integrated into the furniture itself, makes it possible to create environments with different degrees of privacy in the same space. As well as avoiding high furniture, which eliminates visual contact between workers and makes it easier for them to raise their voices, and opting for curved surfaces to reduce noise, it is important to place photocopiers and printers in separate rooms. Incorporating background music can also increase the well-being of workers, as long as it fits the type of task to be performed. Multiple studies have shown how music not only strengthens brain capacity and improves concentration, but also increases motivation and creates a positive work environment.

Therefore, and although noise tolerance varies from person to person and from situation to situation, it is essential to create workspaces that are as quiet as possible. Although there are no specific regulations in this respect, there are two recommendations: the Technical Guide of RD 488/1997, of 14 April, on minimum health and safety requirements for the use of screens with data visualisation, which establishes that "for difficult and complex tasks the equivalent continuous sound level, LAeq supported by the user, should not exceed 55 dB(A)"; and the Basic Building Standard-88:NBE-CA-88, which sets the limits at 40 db(A) for professional offices and 45db(A) for offices.

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