“Very simply put, we have research to understand what good acoustical environments are. We do not always have enough regulatory standards to make that happen. And people get caught in the middle; our children get caught in the middle and our aging adults get caught in the middle… We have a challenge actually pushing the industry to do it and so WELL serves as a bridge to bring a voluntary standard and also to help elevate our colleagues who are experts…”
Earlier this month the International WELL Building Institute (https://www.wellcertified.com/) hosted a webcast titled ‘Acoustics in the world of hybrid work’, looking at the current trends and research around health, performance and the new workplace. The event was moderated by Whitney Austin Gray, Senior Vice President of Research at IWBI and Angela Loder, Vice President of Research at IWBI. Participants included Ethan Bourdeau, Manager, Standard Development, Sound Concept Lead, IWBI; Amanda Robinson, VP Architectural Acoustics, Aercoustics Engineering Ltd., and Anat Grant, Principal, Acoustic Designer, DLR Group. They all have a wealth of experience in the field of acoustics and provided valuable insights into how it can be utilised in the hybrid world.
The purpose of the event was essentially to re-group. In 2020, the majority of office workers switched from the daily sounds of commuting, office chatter and city traffic for home office set-ups and the IWBI acknowledges that these setups varied widely in their acoustical quality. Now that workers are being recalled to the workplace, many are reluctant or outright refusing and the reasons for this include better productivity at home (real and perceived), improved work-life balance and well-being.
Right now, organisations are aware of this employee reluctance and are exploring how to make the workplace more appealing; improved acoustics is a key and often under-examined aspect of this as we are still figuring out how significant a role acoustics play in stress and burnout? This requires a more thorough understanding of what kinds of acoustics are ‘good’ versus ‘stressful’ acoustics and then designing for the latter. The big question of the event was, if poor or stressful acoustics are a key reason for office workers not wanting to return to the office, what implications does this have for office design? The panel discussed a wide range of issues around acoustics for human health, well-being, and performance, and shared insights from current research and new research, including biophilic acoustics.
It was agreed at the outset that acoustics in the world of hybrid work is a critical topic to consider as more and more people are working from home. In this particular webcast, the panel of experts discussed the importance of acoustics in the built environment and how it can impact health and wellbeing. The panel also touched on the global research agenda session focused on acoustics, which is part of the IWBI’s 12 impact agenda. This agenda addresses difficult research questions and aims to get the information into the hands of leading researchers, industry leaders, and students. The panel also discussed the work being done on the 12 competencies for measuring health and wellbeing for human and social capital. This work focuses on measuring and managing health in the workplace, and there are many resources available through IWBI for those interested in learning more: https://www.wellcertified.com/
Ethan kicked things off by outlining that the WELL Building Institute believes that acoustics is an important part of sustainability and high performance workplaces. They have introduced acoustic criteria in programs like LEED and BREEAM to address high-performance workspaces. They also introduced a comfort concept which included indoor environmental quality parameters such as acoustics. In WELL version 2, they have nine features that address acoustics in the workplace, including three new features that focus on hearing health and education in any type of building sector. They also plan to continuously monitor noise over time and include recertification tests to understand how spaces evolve over time. Ethan believes that there is research on good acoustical environments but not always regulatory standards to make it happen. The WELL Building Institute aims to bridge this gap by providing a voluntary standard and elevating experts in the field. They believe that once people are introduced to these pathways and follow a voluntary standard, they will realise that it is accessible and can be replicated across many sites. The speaker also emphasises the importance of understanding the education and strategies for acoustics on a project and starting early to understand the type of environment and acoustics that will support it.
Amanda Robinson believes that the hybrid work environment is here to stay and organisations need to reassess their office needs and digital tools. She also mentioned a study done in the UK where 60 percent of office workers said they were unable to concentrate due to the acoustic environment. Amanda discussed her own work environment and the importance of having flexible spaces and good acoustics for concentration and discussions, highlighting the importance of health and well-being in design and workplace culture.
The challenges of working in an office environment and how the pandemic has introduced better acoustical environments in home environments was a recurring theme of the panel discussion. Research from the University of California, Irvine, was cited, which found that people are interrupted frequently in office environments. This makes it difficult to focus and return to deep work. Amanda shared how she assesses the different modalities of work with clients, such as through interviews and surveys.
Another recurring point of discussion was around the use of earphones in the work environment (ironically, many people on the call were clearly using them). The panel agreed that this of itself could be considered a failure in design. They suggested that the use of headphones indicates that the hazard has not been removed from the individual and they are using personal protective equipment. Amanda also raises concerns about hearing damage and issues associated with the use of headphones as an alternative strategy.
The use of headphones to block out environmental noise can be problematic for several reasons. Firstly, prolonged use of headphones at high volumes can lead to permanent hearing damage. Secondly, the use of headphones can create a sense of isolation and disconnection from the surrounding environment, which can have negative effects on mental health. Additionally, the use of headphones can be a sign that the design of the workspace is not conducive to concentration and focus, and that other measures, such as better acoustic design, are needed to create a more supportive environment. It is important to find a balance between the use of headphones and other strategies, such as acoustic design and flexible workspace design, to create environments that support both hearing health and cognitive function.
One of the key insights shared was that every good company or organisation right now is looking for the answer. There has never been a ‘one size fits all’ because of how people work, what they do and all the cultural shifts that organisations have to make. As an industry, we need to engage with the work modalities in the design process to ensure successful participation in the workplace for everyone.
This was a lively and interesting panel discussion and, comprehensive as it was, here at Sonitus Systems HQ we have the sense that this is only the start of the acoustics conversation when it comes to navigating the hybrid workplace.
Sonitus Systems offers both the hardware and software for a range of environmental parameters on a continual basis, with real-time information available through our Sonitus Cloud dashboard. For more details on our indoor and outdoor noise and air quality monitoring products and services, please contact the team at https://www.sonitussystems.com/contact-us