Acoustics for Wellbeing – the Home Office

By Anthony Chilton

13 May 2020

During the last few weeks, everyone has had to learn to adapt to new situations. For many, including all of us in the Max Fordham Acoustics team, home has become our primary workplace.

Before we had any idea that we would need to make changes to our home environments, we had been developing a methodology for designing office acoustics specifically with wellbeing in mind. The recent changes in our working environments have highlighted some of the factors that we’d been thinking about as part of this.

Acoustics for Wellbeing

The starting point for our approach to Acoustics for Wellbeing follows the methodology of the Max Fordham Wellbeing Canvas tool in considering an occupant’s three ‘intrinsic motivations’:

  • Mastery
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness-to-others

We have tried to put these (fairly abstract) needs into an acoustic context and ask ourselves what it is about a soundscape – or acoustic environment – that would support these needs.

“Mastery” requires a soundscape that supports acoustic comfort, i.e. the acoustic environment should not negatively affect you.

“Autonomy” is provided by a soundscape that supports the specific tasks being undertaken and relies on a match between your environment and the activity you’re doing in it.

Finally, the need for “relatedness to others” is enhanced by a soundscape that supports positive social interactions. This is a need that can often be overlooked when acoustics isn’t thought about in a wellbeing context. People tend to feel most comfortable in spaces where they have a sense of where they are and that they aren’t completely isolated from others, rather than in sterile environments with all sources of sound removed.

The Max Fordham Acoustics x Wellbeing Canvas © Max Fordham LLP

The Home Office

The changes most of us have made to our working habits clearly have knock-on effects on each of the needs that underpin wellbeing. Some needs are harder to meet while working at home, while some are easier. As offices start to reopen, we hope that some of the lessons we learn now can be taken back to our workplaces, to help them support our wellbeing more fully.

Mastery

For most, home-working will provide a significant improvement over the office environment in terms of acoustic comfort, particularly where the comparison is with an open-plan working environment. Homes are typically 10dB or 20dB quieter than offices and the difference has been particularly marked during the lockdown since traffic volume has dropped to less than half of normal levels. Homes also typically benefit from higher levels of sound insulation from neighbours (although this isn't always the case!). It seems, then, that home working is likely to give good conditions for concentration and support our need for a sense of “mastery”.

Autonomy

How much your home supports the need for “autonomy” depends a lot on your circumstances. If you live alone, or in a generously-sized property, you will have much higher levels of control over your local environment than you had in the office. Many, though, are in shared houses, working together around a kitchen table with multiple people doing different tasks. Others are subject to the ever-present threat of incursion from home-schooled children. A certain lack of autonomy is inevitable in these situations.

When people are asked to rate their satisfaction with their office environment, those working in large, open-plan floor plates tend to rate them much lower than those working in cellular offices. However, the highest ratings are normally given by those who have access to a range of different environments, which may include open-plan office areas, collaborative breakout spaces, and quiet areas for high concentration work. This approach is referred to as “activity-based working” and forms the core of a workplace well-suited to providing a sense of “autonomy”.

Relatedness to Others

Of the three, this is the need that most of us have found hardest to fulfil in the home-working environment (and probably in our lives in general).

Video-conferencing (VC) has replaced all formal meetings and is also becoming a substitute for social interactions. It is now typical for colleagues to organise social lunches, coffee breaks or after-work drinks over VC. All of us will be familiar with the acoustic shortcomings of VC meetings – poor quality microphones, background noise, distortion when the clever signal-processing struggles to compensate for feedback. Although these issues are reduced if participants use good-quality headsets and mute their microphones when not needed, there are aspects of meeting in person that cannot be replicated by VC. 

In person, you are all contained within a shared acoustic space without the barrier of digital audio compression and processing. Not only does it feel less natural to have an impromptu chat if it requires a specific call to be made, but we lose the passive connection that being in an office provides. You can’t overhear an interesting conversation, or chip in with something, if those conversations are happening in a VC meeting that you are not aware is happening.

In an office, you can build up an idea about what your colleagues are doing. Even something as simple as the change in noise levels or soundscape throughout the day helps you feel part of a larger whole.

Conclusion

In terms of wellbeing in the home office environment, relatedness to our colleagues is the "motivation" we may need to be most aware and have the ability to control the most. This might be mitigated by adaptations to the working culture such as more use of instant messaging, more regular informal team meetings, encouraging social VC meet-ups, particularly for those who may be less inclined to organise themselves. 

Looking ahead, we should all make a mental note of what we are missing about the office environment and what we aren’t, so we might improve our workplaces when we return to them.

Anthony Chilton is Head of Acoustics and can be contacted by email at a.chilton@maxfordham.com. This blog post was co-written by Josh Rodell who is an Acoustic Engineer (normally based in our London office) and can be contacted by email at j.rodell@maxfordham.com.



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