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Are noisy offices preventing people returning to the office?

A recent study into employee productivity by Oscar Acoustics[iii] who spoke to 500 senior management workers found that offices are struggling to deal with the demands created by hybrid working, with excessive noise at the heart of employee grievances which is affecting productivity. They highlight that despite over three quarters of employers implementing hybrid working measures that noise levels were often unbearable, becoming so loud that a quarter of UK workers aged between 18 and 50, expressed serious concern about going back to workstations. Noisy colleagues were the main source of disruption, with office banter the most annoying trait affecting four in ten workers, whilst a third struggle to concentrate alongside near-by video conferencing.

Before the pandemic ‘working from home’ was often frowned upon and likely discouraged by many bosses. Fast forward to 2023 and new flexible ways of working, including working from home full-time and hybrid working are the norm.

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics highlighted that 16% of the workforce still worked solely from home between September 2022 and January 2023, while 28% were hybrid workers splitting their time between home and office[i].

But the head of the UK’s biggest business group, Tony Danker from the CBI said in January this year that most bosses “secretly” want all of their staff to return to working in offices, suggesting that the “whole world of work” had “gone crazy” since the pandemic”[ii].

Whichever way companies fall on this debate, there is one factor that many may not have even considered when thinking about employees returning to the office in some capacity and that’s the noise.

A recent study into employee productivity*, of 500 senior management workers found that offices are struggling to deal with the demands created by hybrid working, with excessive noise at the heart of employee grievances which is affecting productivity.

They highlight that despite over three quarters of employers implementing hybrid working measures that noise levels were often unbearable, becoming so loud that a quarter of UK workers aged between 18 and 50, expressed serious concern about going back to workstations.

Noisy colleagues were the main source of disruption, with office banter the most annoying trait affecting four in ten workers, whilst a third struggle to concentrate alongside near-by video conferencing.

Being able to hear meetings from the other side of the room is also a common source of irritation as is dining at the desk, humming, singing and other bodily sounds like breathing and scratching.

Dealing with noise in the office is a priority for employers that want people to return to the office even if it’s only for a few days a week. But hybrid working in itself could be part of the problem if not managed properly.

For instance, too many people coming in on the same days each week could increase noise levels, especially as colleagues haven’t seen each other for a few days.

Also having a lot of people in towards the end of the week could be disruptive as people are winding down and looking forward to the weekend which could mean more chatting.

Another issue as highlighted in the Oscar Acoustics research is video conference calls. With team members working in different places it’s tempting for people to be doing more video calls at their desks which raise noise levels.

Some workers may also just be less tolerant to noise having worked at home for a long time during the pandemic on their own and now find the office environment overwhelming.

So what can employers do to ensure office levels are kept at appropriate levels and that productivity doesn’t suffer no matter where people are working?

We recommend that employers ensure they have the right systems and polices in place for managing flexible working so that it doesn’t just become a free for all with people popping into the office on the days they feel like.

Discuss with workers which day’s they are coming in and make sure that each day has appropriate cover in the office. This could be done on a rota system to ensure its fair, but it might be best to discourage people just deciding at the start of each week when they will be in. Too much flexibility can make it difficult to plan the working week.

Using absence management software can help manage and plan where and when people are working, track different types of absence, including sick leave, holidays and training days, and ensure visibility across the organisation. It gives access to workers schedules too via departmental calendars so it’s easy to see where everyone is.

It also enables managers to gain better operational control and support of the day-to-day management of their workforce and it’s a great tool for successfully implementing flexible and hybrid working.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/14/working-from-home-revolution-hybrid-working-inequalities .

[ii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-64420266

[iii] https://hrnews.co.uk/bosses-confirm-offices-are-failing-to-adapt-to-hybrid-working/

*Research from Oscar Acoustics

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