3rd October 2022


Sense-checking your workplace: The risks of overlooking audio



About the author


Tom Darnell, COO, IRIS Audio Technologies

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Workplace wellbeing is becoming an increasingly popular subject, and employers are adopting creative ways of supporting their workers — both at home and in the office. For desk-based workers, this might mean completing a Display Screen Equipment (DSE) risk assessment to ensure the safety of their workstation. You might get a swanky new lumbar support chair or a full HD monitor as a result. What you’re unlikely to get, however, is an upgrade of your audio quality. Unfortunately, audio is regularly overlooked in these assessments, often at the detriment of employee wellbeing, productivity, and even physical health.

The role of noise in our lives

The damage loud noise exposure can have on our physical and mental health is well documented. In fact,  there are many protective solutions in place to ensure our hearing is shielded from the most damaging noises. Our phones nudge us when the volume is too high, we’ve got stringent anti-night flight laws to preserve our sleep, and governments like the UK mandate employers to protect their workers from noises louder than 80db, which is why you see pneumatic drill operators wearing ear protection while they work.

Even so, the European Environment Agency reports that an estimated 100 million people are still exposed to harmful noise levels, which then leads to 12,000 premature deaths. That’s a baffling statistic that highlights just how big a part sound plays in our lives and it’s time we work towards controlling it so it doesn’t control — and harm — us.

The hidden dangers of ambient sound

One hidden danger when it comes to noise isn’t just how loud it can be, but how constant it is. It’s those everyday ambient noises such as coffee machines, dogs barking, and background office chatter which stop us from performing to the best of our ability — and the worst part is we don’t even realise it.

You might think this would only affect those who suffer from misophonia — a disorder in which sounds trigger an outsized emotional or physiological response — but recent research shows us that ambient noise can affect all of us. How? It  increases the production of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can impact your health long-term.

Work environments are particularly at risk. In fact, a recent survey we conducted on one of the most impacted industries, call centres, shows that 69% of agents feel noise has a negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing. For years, we’ve accepted ambient noise as just another part of our lives. Thanks to its incredible processing power, our brains have been able to parse through it to focus on what matters, though not without effort.  With the recent increase in VoIP and online calls, where all noises are picked up equally, the brain has to work even harder to stay focused, leading to more mental fatigue, burnout, and even employee churn. The issue of background noise is now too potent to ignore.

How to fight the noise

Not only does background noise affect our physical and mental wellbeing, it also impacts our productivity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, business sector labour productivity decreased by 7.5% in the first quarter of 2022 — despite US employees working even longer hours. Now is the time for business leaders to get an edge on their competitors by investigating new ways of boosting productivity — like eliminating the distraction of background noise. .

Here are a few simple solutions that could transform productivity in your workplace:

  1. Support Different workstyles

Although office spaces are great for collaboration, they can sometimes be difficult to work in with all of the conversations going on around. In an attempt to foster a stronger team spirit, some workplaces even prohibit the use of headphones. Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable both using headphones when doing focused work and embracing the office buzz can protect productivity without jeopardising the wider office atmosphere.

2. Create dedicated quiet spaces

Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid noise, whether you’re working from home or in the office. If possible, employers should provide dedicated spaces where employees can get their heads down and concentrate on more demanding tasks.

Additionally, managers can cull the number of meetings and their duration, even encouraging people to schedule “focused time” on their calendars to give their brains a break from the noise. If that’s too challenging, there’s a handy feature in calendars like Outlook and Google which allows you to change the default meeting length to 25 and 55 minutes to give attendees a few extra minutes to breathe.

3. Invest in audio tech

Let’s face it, meetings — and background noise — aren’t going away. So when we can’t avoid them with some of the solutions above, we can invest in strategic solutions to at least mitigate them. Improving an office’s insulation or installing sound-friendly flooring is expensive, and only partially effective. An alternative option is investing in audio tech — a more affordable, accessible, and nimble solution that can adapt to any business’ needs — large or small;  in office, remote, or hybrid.

Audio technology can be particularly beneficial to call centres, which suffer most from background noise. Productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee churn are all severely affected when agents and customers can’t hear each other clearly. AI-powered tech like voice isolation software, which removes background noise on both sides of a call, is a great investment for call centre leaders.

Whatever your business, empowering your employees to stay focused, engaged, and healthy should be a priority for 2023. We’ve seen great progress over the last few years in video technology that enables employees to enjoy higher definition screens, work in lower-bandwidth locations, and hide personal backgrounds — but audio has been largely left behind. Fortunately, some incredible audio tech solutions are now available to change this, giving employers and employees control of previously uncontrollable environments.