The discussion surrounding 'return to work' has been a hot topic since most non-essential workers began working from home at the the start of the COVID protocols in March of 2020. For some workers, they realized that working from home was a viable option that previously did not seem possible. Since jurisdictions began to lift work from home mandates companies have been faced with some hard decisions on how work should happen moving forward. Some organizations have continued with the work from home model, some have adopted a hybrid approach and others have determined that in office operations is a mandatory requirement of employment.
As an acoustics focused organization we began to see an increase in acoustic treatments for office areas as employees began to re-enter their old offices. We have a few theories behind this, some of which are highlighted in a recent (November 2022) Forbes Article, titled "How to Get Employees Back in the Office."
Our current theories in no particular order, are as follows:
- Individuals became used to a quieter home environment, opposed to the louder hustle and bustle of the office. Not only were workplaces quieter for most office workers, the concerts, dining out, festivals, and other activities that took place in large crowded venues were halted. The world become very quiet. There were even less cars driving, creating less background noise pollution. Many of us became used to a quieter way of life. Coming back to a noisy office can be startling and distracting.
- There has been an organizational behaviour and architectural trend towards collaborative office environments for the past several years. Tear down the walls, increase transparency and foster communication, etc. This, from an architectural perspective has resulted in the trend towards open offices. From a collaboration standpoint, this workplace layout is effective. However, from a privacy and acoustic perspective these open layouts have lost many of the traditional noise barriers - such as walls, that helped with noise control. The addition of acoustic treatment is almost non-negotiable in these spaces.
- The education surrounding the importance of acoustics is continuing to improve. New building standards are incorporating acoustic requirements as a part of the design parameters. The most common would be the LEED Building Standard and the WELL Building Standard. Some jurisdictions, such as Alberta Infrastructure mandate and enforce reverberation time standards for new projects such as schools, hospitals, etc.
The Forbes article discusses many non-acoustic factors regarding the topic of employees re-entering the workplace, however there was a quote that rang very true.
"But before moving forward with a return-to-work effort, leaders should consider whether the office environment actually fosters that benefit. Many companies shifted to open office arrangements to get more collaboration. They ended up with people distracted from their work by continuous noise. So the workers plugged themselves into headphones in order to concentrate, withdrawing from conversation opportunities."
When looking at these topics, a holistic approach is necessary. Acoustics is an extremely functional part of this approach that is often neglected until a problem arises. It is very encouraging to see large media organizations include acoustic points as part of a broader topic. Acoustic treatment alone does not solve a problem, but if the implementation and utilization of acoustic treatment is applied to a collaborative environment, innovative discussions can be fostered. Problems can be solved and new ideas can emerge.
Employees are an organizations number one asset. Ensuring a comfortable work environment on multiple levels allows for a productive and engaged workforce.