Before the pandemic hit almost 22 months ago (yes, it’s been that long), most people spent a majority of their waking hours at work. As workers trickle back to the office after working from home for so long, many are struggling to get work done because of all the racket in the office. In a study conducted by the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management last August, most of the 2,000 adults surveyed say that coping with the noises of the office negatively impacts their productivity. Headphones can only block so much out, and it’s next to impossible to soundproof a cubicle. Pervasive sounds are not only distracting, but they pose a serious problem in the post-pandemic of video conferencing, which isn’t going away any time soon.
Many office workers became acquainted with Zoom’s video conferencing technology while working remotely. While Zoom exploded as most of the working population was stuck at home, it needed a way to remain relevant when people eventually returned to the office. Last September, it was announced that Zoom was partnering with ROOM, a predominant maker of soundproofed office booths.
In the past, workers who needed to take a work call would either endure the collective background noise at their desks, or they would huddle elsewhere, be it the stairwell, the parking lot, or even the bathroom. But now with the advent of video-calling, hiding away in an odd corner or a bathroom stall isn’t an option any more. Morten Meisner-Jensen, co-founder of ROOM told The Wall Street Journal that even the typical office meeting rooms “weren’t designed for video calling. The lighting is often too dark or too bright in standard booths, and audio can become tinny or echoey in larger spaces.” Although video meetings were not as common before the pandemic as they are now, many workers who needed privacy or quiet were often frustrated by the excessive noise levels of their work environment, so it’s no surprise that the onset of COVID-19 enhanced the fad of soundproof booths.
Loud of sorts
Especially in the age of videoconferencing, offices need to have some element of noise reduction. Now, people are returning to the office to get away from the commotions at home. But even so, many offices weren’t actually designed with acoustics in mind. Research from Sage indicates that 80 percent of U.S. offices are open-plan, making them a hotbed of noise and distractions. What’s worse, many offices are built in city centers, smack-dab in a dizzying cacophony of traffic jams, construction work, sirens, and car alarms. More often than not, those urban offices have an open-layout, which only makes the clamors of the street reverberate throughout the office. It’s no wonder that employees who work in open offices get distracted every three minutes.
Connections between public health and noise have been made since the early 1970s when the Noise Control Act came into play. It cites that “inadequately controlled noise presents a growing danger to the health and welfare of the Nation’s population, particularly in urban areas.” At the time the Act was written, the main health complications that came with prolonged exposure to excessive noise were high blood pressure, stress, lost productivity, and of course, hearing loss. But in 2015, the findings became more dire. Researchers at the University of Colorado discovered that “even small degrees of hearing loss can cause secondary changes in the brain.” Those “changes” refer to instances of brain shrinkage, which heavily correlate with dementia.
It’s not just blaring sounds that can have a negative impact. Background noise affects the subconscious mind, even if we don’t always perceive it, and it’s not something your brain can really adjust to. “Continued exposure to low-level background noise does not lead to habituation,” according to Mark A. W. Andrews, director and professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., “in fact, the effects worsen.”
Booth in revolt
The surge of videoconferencing during the pandemic drove acoustic considerations for the office. Sure, there are plenty of soundproofing options that can be implemented within a building: wall panels made of dense foam layers, rolling out thicker carpeting, installing sound-absorbing drop ceiling tiles, and even applying a coat of soundproof paint. But Zoom meetings necessitate isolation as well as quiet, which is where modular sound proof booths come in.
As the last 22 months have shown (how has it been that long?!), things can change without warning. Even with vaccines and antiviral pills, as one variant of the virus begins to recede, another strain spreads like wildfire and cancels reopening plans. The safest bet in any time of uncertainty is to be as flexible as possible, which is what offices and building managers who want to attract office tenants have come to realize. Employees are predominantly working on a hybrid model (if they weren’t sent back to a fully remote schedule because of Omicron), so a giant office that was designed to see the entirety of the business’ workforce on a daily basis isn’t suitable for a lot of companies. So many companies opted to downsize to a space that wasn’t initially intended to serve as an office. Having a prefab space that could be packed up and rebuilt in another location was one less thing for businesses to worry about.
But will the demand for soundproof office booths remain after COVID-19 finally crawls back into the circle of hell that it came from? At least for the foreseeable future, likely yes. If people want to go back to the office as much as experts are claiming that they do, then it stands to reason that offices are only going to get louder. Plus, property managers might want to hold off on any major soundproofing renovations. Fully soundproofing an existing space requires that the drywall be ripped off and the interior walls be filled with metal channels and padded with fiberglass installation. Though it’s not a terribly complicated construction project, it’s a process that the supply chain crisis, which might not let up until 2023, can easily mangle.
Even though the Noise Control Act of 1972 still stands, funding for it dissolved a decade later, and that’s a shame because our current work climate would greatly benefit from a universal mitigation of noise. Office designers are often left to their own devices to reduce noise so employees can focus. Unfortunately, they’ll need to continue to do so, whether that’s implementing an office phone booth or by some other means, because Zoom is here to stay, and presumably, so is our desire for quiet.