Noise rage: why some workers are resisting a return to the office

Younger employees are more likely to challenge noisy colleagues

Results from a UAE survey showed 37 per cent of people were concerned about noisy phone calls and meetings.  Getty Images
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An unexpected obstacle is causing some workers to think twice about returning to the office.

“Noise rage” can be a major concern for people who have spent almost two years working remotely in the quiet comfort of their own home, according to a new report titled “Evolution of the Workplace".

The prospect of heading back to an office full of ringing telephones, chitchat and dreaded eating noises is putting people off.

Research by technology firm Poly showed that noise is extremely off-putting for workers who will soon be back at their office desks, and young people are the most affected.

“We knew noise was an issue in offices that concerned employees before Covid,” said Paul Clark, senior vice president of Poly for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

People told our researchers that they won’t tolerate noisy colleagues any longer, whether eating or talking loudly.
Paul Clark, Poly

“But what was surprising about this research was just how visceral the response has been about going back to the office and people’s tolerance to noise,” he said.

“That [tolerance] has significantly reduced.”

Researchers asked 7,261 workers from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Poland and the UAE about their experience of returning to the office after lengthy periods of home working.

Of those, 250 people in the UAE were asked in August about their new office working experiences.

Results showed 37 per cent were concerned about noisy phone calls and meetings, while 31 per cent were worried about noisy colleagues.

“The figures from the report are consistent, as the results we saw in the UAE were very similar to the other six counties in [Europe] where this research took place,” said Mr Clark.

Younger workers were more likely to have an angry reaction to office noise, with 34 per cent admitting to an outburst.

Of the UAE employees polled, 36 per cent indicated they would get fed up if noisy colleagues broke their concentration, with 53 per cent of those expressing concerns working in the healthcare sector.

Women were more likely to get annoyed at a rustling packet of crisps munched by a hungry colleague, with 42 per cent prepared to voice a complaint, while 31 per cent of men said colleagues were a distraction.

However, not everyone is dreading a return to the office.

Analysis by global real estate firm JLL found attitudes towards working from home had shifted in the last 12 months, with more people now preferring to re-join colleagues in the workplace.

In October 2020, the survey found 52 per cent of people wanted to work from the office at least once a week, and that number increased to 75 per cent a year later.

The Workers Preference Barometer for India recently showed 91 per cent of survey respondents were in favour of flexible working hours.

Turning down the noise

Businesses can manage their office space by absorbing noise with technology.

Devices like noise cancelling headphones create a bubble of clean noise, where anything outside a particular radius is suppressed.

Noise-block is another technology becoming more widely used during conference calls.

When someone is eating or talking loudly, AI software removes non-speech noise so only the conversation is picked up during virtual meetings.

“Office noise is a big frustration for many as it is a distraction from work,” said Mr Clark.

“Over the last 18 months we have been managing our home environments, which haven’t been totally noise free.

“People told our researchers that they won’t tolerate noisy colleagues any longer, whether eating or talking loudly.

“Constant noise is a distraction and that is a hit on an organisation’s productivity.”

Poly’s UAE research showed 82 per cent of people wanted to continue working from home at least one day a week.

Another 54 per cent said they wanted to split their time between home and the office.

“People have had a taste of what home working is like and they don’t want to give it up,” said Mr Clark.

“Employers are going to have to respect that, or they will lose their workforce to competitors.

“Businesses are going to have to accommodate home working in some capacity — there is no going back now.”

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Updated: October 22, 2021, 4:35 AM