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The Sound of Collaboration

The challenge

Modern workspaces are all about collaboration. But collaboration can be noisy, with poor acoustics being one of the top complaints from people when asked about factors which are dissatisfying in their workplace. Acoustic engineers typically focus on designing a space to meet certain overall noise levels, but everyone reacts to noise differently. To maximise the productivity of collaborative work environments, we need to understand how the noise of collaborative work interferes with the productivity of other work.

In this article

  • An approach to office design which considers social networks, acoustics, and office layout and how these may affect peoples' concentration, and sometimes annoyance.
  • Adaptable workplaces that do more than just shift partitions and furniture around, but rather match the way people want to work now, and in the future.
  • Developing new metrics to assess how well workplaces are meeting what people need.

Acoustics engineering often relies on sticking stuff to walls and ceilings to improve the acoustic quality of spaces. With materials of different densities and textures, acousticians can control the overall level of noise in a room. Most often, this involves optimising the noise from mechanical ventilation, or making sure a partitioned space will be isolated enough for private meetings. This approach is generally limited to specifying insulations and surface treatments, which is well understood in the field. What is less well understood is how people’s individual reactions to noise differ. Some people are sensitive to overhearing phone calls, or their colleagues’ love of potato chips, or being near a busy corridor or a beeping printer. To gain that level of insight, it is necessary to understand the way that work patterns of some teams impact the others around them. Recently, Dr Marta Galindo-Romero and Ken Yi-Fong—two acoustic consultants in our Melbourne office—had the opportunity to pilot this approach when contributing on a research project that looked at modern workplace design.

Hassell, an international design studio, was recently engaged by Aurizon, the largest freight operator in Australia, to help make their workplaces more flexible for their staff. We live in an era where a person's relationships with—and their expectations of—their workplace are changing faster than ever. Dr Agustin Chevez, an in-house researcher at Hassell with a passion for good workplace design, together with the Arup team and Optimice (Organisational Social Network experts) developed the Sound of Collaboration framework, a new way to understand noise in workplaces.

In doing so, “we are trying to change the way design is traditionally procured” says Agustin. “We aim to minimise the number of assumptions that we make as designers and, importantly, stay involved in our projects for the longevity of the design. Why? To make sure it is working, and if not, adjust the design accordingly. In workplaces, even if we get the first design perfectly right, the client organisation is likely to change over time, and like a car, will need fine tuning.”

By studying the way people interact across themselves and within their workplace, we can deploy improved iterations of workplace designs “We call this RAW, Responsive Agile Workplaces and Arup’s acoustics team allows us to scrutinise the environment in ways that we haven't been able to do in the past. Can noise be used as a proxy of knowledge transfer in open plan setting?” Agustin adds

Modern workplaces are all about collaboration. The theory is that more collaboration equals better quality work, happier workers and more productivity. But collaboration is noisy. Do we have to sacrifice the acoustic comfort of those around us to create collaborative environments?

We live in a world where people can work from anywhere, anytime. Offices increasingly exist primarily to communicate leadership, workstyle, tone and forming and developing networks. Therefore, to understand the modern workplace we need to understand how those networks work. As such, the RAW team composed by Hassell, Leesman, Optimice and Arup, have done a social networking analysis of Aurizon’s office. This provided the teams with a trove of fine-grain office interaction data as well as qualitative information about what made people comfortable or what made them bothered.

By combining those insights with more detailed acoustic analysis, Ken and Marta could to explore different relationships between the web of workplace acoustics, human perception and human experiences. This prompted them to ask questions like: Were certain types of people simply more annoyed by certain types of noise? How do different kinds of office work generate different noises? Are traditional design parameters like noise levels good predictors of satisfaction, or are there other hidden factors? What would it take to "optimise" the total level of dissatisfaction in a workplace while boosting collaboration? To test these hypotheses, they are collecting acoustic data and correlating certain acoustic markers with other RAW metrics. This is helping the team to understand the effects different sound levels and types have on satisfaction and annoyance.

Marta is not just a PhD in acoustics, she’s also an accomplished artist. Here are her sketches of the equipment used to record noise levels – a sound level meter on tripod (left) and noise logger (right). These were set up on each office floor between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and gave the team the data they needed to test correlations with collaboration.

“We’re looking at a workspace and seeing peaks and troughs of human discomfort, and we want to reduce that as much as possible” says Ken. "How can we design to reduce the negative impacts of noise disturbances without sacrificing the level of interaction and ultimately increase productivity and satisfaction?"

Traditionally acoustic engineers are tasked to design to specific noise levels. But you can see from these photos, different people react to noise differently. Part of this study was to get a better idea of how different types of noise affected different types of people.

Modern workplaces seem to be all about collaboration and flexibility. But Ken and Marta began to wonder if these weren’t contradictory requirements. “Collaboration is noisy” says Ken. Intuitively, increasing the amount of collaboration inherently increases the noise level. However, the researchers considered if there were ways to work around this apparent contradiction. For that, understanding individual human behaviour is key. This is where we’re looking forward to integrating our research with Hassell’s RAW—which looks in depth at office interactions–down to the individual level. There are many intriguing paths to explore, for instance, is noise different between teams that need to deliberate internally more about their decisions before bringing them to a higher up? Teams with more autonomy—or workers who do not need to spend as much time in discussion—may have different noise signatures.

By combining the objective data of noise levels, against the subjective data of worker comfort, and cross referencing the social networks of an office we can understand what kind of collaboration makes what kind of noise, which teams are most likely to make it, and how that noise will affect the teams around them.

This level of understanding about acoustic comfort is far more detailed and nuanced than designing to meet certain pre-existing noise level standards. It points to a whole new area of explorative research for acoustic engineering, and to a new way to see offices as a work in progress that can maximise the comfort and the collaboration of the people who use them.

In a world where people can work from anywhere, anytime, offices seem to increasingly exist primarily to communicate social needs. These are our newly constructed Melbourne offices, which were intentionally designed by Hassell and Arup to allow people to work how they want, but still be connected within and between teams.

Ken and Marta are wrapping up the findings from these last two years of research (read below), and are now exploring the perception side of the acoustic design - how do people perceive their own environment, and how can we design for it? 

Findings

  • Modern workspaces do not fit in the description of the typical office space appearing in international standards to measure room acoustic parameters. This brings challenges and opportunities to improve design.
  • In the first pilot study a correlation between collaboration (as interactions) and noise levels was not observed. At the same time, a correlation between noise levels and annoyance was not found either, which is very interesting. The predictors for annoyance are therefore more nuanced than simply looking at absolute noise levels and may be more significantly affected by other factors like types of noise, personal tolerances to noise and duration or character of noise.
  • Perception of noise by different people needs to be better understood to properly apply Human-Centred Design in new offices and fitouts.

This story was written by Keith Little, as part of the Research Review series. The series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Dr Marta Galindo Romero
Marta is an acoustic consultant in our Melbourne office.

Ask Ken and Marta about:

  • Acoustic design and fit-outs in new and old office spaces.
  • How noise in a workplace affects different people and teams, and how to design for it.
  • Technical details behind measuring noise, and how to use this with social network analysis and other analysis to better understand your workplace.
  • The differences between how people perceive noise, and the noise level recorded.

LEAD Partner RESEARCHER

Dr Agustin Chevez
Dr Chevez is a researcher with Hassell Studio looking at the future of work and how environments best support our working lives. His work has been presented at various international forums and published in both, academic and industry publications. We recommend his TEDx talk: “Soufflés, gymnasts and the workplace of the future".

Research TEAM

Ken-Yi
Fong
Ken is an acoustics consultant in our Melbourne office.
Will
Gouthro
Will leads our acoustics team in Melbourne.

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