Silence is golden

We are constantly exposed to a range of different noises, and our quality of life, especially in large cities, can be seriously affected by excessive auditory stimulus. We often fail to notice the noise that we are subjected to from the street, office equipment, background conversation, telephones and background music, while working in silence has become a luxury that city dwellers are often in no position to enjoy.

Silence for the mind

Our working conditions also have an impact on our sense of well-being, our psychological health and our motivation to finish our work. If we expect people to work efficiently, we therefore have to provide the conditions for them to improve their creativity and reduce their stress levels – and noise is just one element that can result in an individual pumping out more stress hormones. This even occurs while we sleep, which is why resting in the absence silence is ineffective. And so, for good reasons the rooms in the Ronald McDonald Home in Warsaw for the parents of children in long-term hospital care come equipped with expensive soundproofing, since having the right sound environment helps them to rest and recuperate their strength. Silence is not only essential for regeneration but is also beneficial when it comes to concentration, reflection and creativity. Working in silence enhances detailed work, our thinking and our ability to remember information. In recent years, it has been demonstrated that exposure to noise is not only detrimental to our sense of well-being but also to our general health. Noise from road traffic and industry has been linked to sleep disruption and high blood pressure. Everyone needs silence, but it is most needed by the neuroatypical, who suffer the most from excess noise and find it very difficult to function normally in surroundings with an over-abundance of such stimuli. For this reason, offices that cater for the needs of everyone now feature working zones with different noise parameters.

The right-sounding project

Hanna Ruszkowska-Świąder, the head of design at Polish interior design specialist Tétris, insists on the need to design space that provides acoustic comfort. “When we design offices, we strive to create conditions that are conducive to both work and relaxation. One important aspect when planning an office is to take neurodiversity into account, which has a huge impact on how we perceive sound. In the same office space there could be people who need absolute silence to concentrate as well as those who just require an absence of eye contact and would also feel great working in a railway station café. Space should be set aside for each of these groups to allow them to work under what are the optimal conditions for them,” she argues. Ewelina Kałużna, the managing director of Business Link and the strategic workplace advisory at Skanska, also stresses the need for separate zones for different uses in an office. On the initiative of the company’s employees, the ‘Neurodiversity in the Office. How to Design Neuroinclusive Work Space’ report was drawn up, and one of its conclusions was the need for zoning, that is, dividing offices into areas with specific functions. For example, setting up a quiet zone and then surrounding it with phoning areas. This reduces the noise in the communal areas while allowing people to move around and change their surroundings. The guidelines from the report were used in the design of Business Link’s new Warsaw offices in the Studio complex, which is currently under construction. “In our new location, we will be providing what we call a ‘snooze room’. This will include a recliner, a yoga mat for meditation, and a cocoon – a cloth hammock that you can hide away inside by zipping it up, completely isolating yourself from your surroundings,” reveals Ewelina Kałużna. “When we are regenerating, all sensory stimuli are of great importance and should be adjusted to each of our needs, which is why we are giving our office users control over the sounds they are exposed to. They will be able to play their own music in the room or they can relax in silence. The room will have a reservation system, so nothing will be able to disturb anyone using it to rest in,” she adds. The snooze room is not the only amenity designed with tranquillity in mind that Business Link employees will have at their disposal. An innovative device known as a NAP, or neuron activation pod, is to be installed in the common area, which will allow people to rest and isolate themselves from their surroundings in a closed capsule or simply on a recliner. Each NAP session could be used for calming down, recuperation or simply to block out external stimuli. In the gym, which will have a similar booking system, employees will be able to choose if they want to exercise to music. “We are taking a comprehensive approach when it comes to the noise levels or type of noise necessary for personal regeneration. Some of us like to relax in complete silence; while for others, silence means being immersed in natural sounds. All of our solutions are intended to eliminate typical office noise and give users control over the sounds they hear, as we all have different brains and we all need different types of stimuli and activity,” explains Ewelina Kałużna.

Measuring the comfort levels

The auditory comfort of building users is one of the ten aspects evaluated by the international Well certification system devised a decade ago by US-based well-being in real estate specialist Delos and that is now awarded by the International Well Building Institute. “For CMS’s head office in Warsaw, we were awarded the first Well Certification with a ‘Platinum’ rating. These terms are technicalities, understood only by certification professionals, so we have to explain the uniqueness of CMS’s certificate in layman’s terms,” points out Wojciech Tworek of JLL, who supported CMS in its Well certification. “By carrying out acoustic modelling at an early design stage, each architectural or technical changes recommended by the acoustics expert becomes an integral part of the project at the outset. And by carrying out the design work according to these guidelines, excellent acoustic conditions have been provided in these offices, as confirmed by independent measurements carried out as during the Well certification,” he explains. Due to the specifics of the legal profession, it was important to ensure the optimal acoustic comfort in the office, and at CMS’s Warsaw branch, modern solutions have been employed that not only make the office quiet but that also ensure privacy. Particular attention was paid to reducing echo, which is of crucial importance in online meetings. Hanna Ruszkowska-Świąder also emphasises the issue of being able to comprehend the spoken word: “When most of our communication, even in the office, takes place via online platforms, understanding speech is one of the most important factors. Providing an acoustically well-designed meeting room with appropriate audio-visual systems ensures sound quality that is close to that of a live conversation,” she argues.

Wojciech Tworek brings up another important point: “Employees’ expectations have changed since the pandemic. Those working from home have become used to silence and expect similar conditions in the office when they return, even though they had no objections to their working environment just two years ago. Organisations that care about retaining talent now have to upgrade their office space to encourage their employees to return,” he explains.

Technological solutions

One fundamental consideration in providing quiet working space is how to minimise the sound leakage. Hanna Ruszkowska-Świąder stresses that designers now have a multitude of solutions at their disposal to ensure interiors have the right acoustics. “We have a variety of tools we can use for this, such as sound-absorbing panels, which can be mounted on the walls and ceilings or as free-standing screens. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are manufactured from different materials, such as acoustic foam and fabric or perforated wood. Carpeting is also an excellent sound-absorbing element – it can reduce echo and dampen sounds that bounce off hard floors. The right carpet and curtains can significantly improve the acoustics of an office,” she explains.

A culture of silence

Silence, or the lack of it, is clearly also subject to the human factor. A state-of-the-art office with cutting-edge fittings will not be a quiet, comfortable space if the colleague sitting next to you is constantly receiving text messages with a loud beep while someone else is on the phone for hours on end. Thus the technology at our disposal is of no use without the right working culture. Hanna Ruszkowska-Swiąder stresses the importance of introducing and adhering to rules that allow the whole team to work together in comfort. “When creating workspace, we try to educate both employers and employees on how to provide areas for focused work and creativity. By laying down rules for the use of mobile phones, chatting on Teams or group discussions, we can allow other employees to work in comfort,” she insists. The human factor is also emphasised by Katarzyna Chwalbińska-Kusek, the ESG and sustainability director at Savills: “Providing office space that takes into account acoustic factors is very important, but just as much depends on the everyday behaviour of the users. These two factors should go hand in hand. It is common practice to encourage good habits in open office space. But without a good design, it’s hard to behave in the right way, while a good design that isn’t used properly isn’t going to have the desired effect either,” she concludes.