Life & Work

Could noise be polluting your company's profit?


Imagine if the noise surrounding us suppressed our ability to excel and thrive. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

In our everyday hustle and bustle, a chorus of sounds assaults us from the roar of traffic to the chatter of people and from the hum of machinery to the clangour of construction.

Amid all auditory commotion, we attempt to complete our tasks, seldom considering the impact of these noises on our productivity.

Imagine if the noise surrounding us suppressed our ability to excel and thrive.

Joshua Dean from the famed University of Chicago Booth School of Business grappled with such a question in his published research that he conducted right here in Kenya to evaluate the relationship between noise and worker productivity.

He crafted two insightful experiments. In the initial experiment, he randomised exposure to engine noise during a textile training course at a Government of Kenya facility.

The results proved stunning. An increase of only 10 decibels led to a reduction in tangible quantifiable productivity by roughly 5 percent.

Let us pause and take a moment to reflect on the profound implications of the research on business profits. Imagine such a productivity drop applied to an entire workforce in an organisation.

The decrease in efficiency inevitably translates to a decrease in output, and, for many businesses, output equals profit.

So, does noise pollute our profits? The evidence seems to suggest so. The presence of constant noise in a workplace can lead to employees taking more time to complete tasks, making more mistakes, and producing work of lower quality.

Businesses might find themselves grappling with missed deadlines, botched projects, and disappointed customers, all of which pose threats to their bottom line.

Just imagine the thousands of workers in high-growth Nyali, Westlands, Upper Hill, and Kilimani facing constant construction noises in neighbouring compounds.

Moreover, the cost of noise pollution does not merely stop at the output. Consider the implications for employee health.

Research from many authors including Sahar Geravandi, Afshin Takdastan, Elahe Zallaghi, Mehdi Niri, Mohammad Mohammadi, Hamed Saki, Abolfazl Naiemabadi, Stephen Standfeld, and Mark Matheson show that prolonged exposure to noise pollution can cause stress and even hearing loss.

The health issues result in more sick leaves, higher healthcare costs, and increased staff turnover that further erodes away at profits.

Meanwhile, a lack of self-awareness and organisational awareness about the negative effects of noise means businesses might not even know what fuels their productivity drops and profit declines.

In turn, they may fruitlessly focus on improving skills or streamlining processes, while the true culprit of excess noise continues to wreak havoc on their bottom line.

In an increasingly competitive business environment, profit margins often make the difference between success and failure.

By ignoring the noise issue, businesses risk eroding their net revenues, their employee well-being, and ultimately, their competitive standing.

Addressing noise pollution, therefore, does not only contribute to a better working environment, it becomes a critical strategic move that can significantly enhance business profitability.

But in looking at the research findings, how did the experiments pinpoint the cause and effects here in Kenya and why should we trust the research?

First, the study did not merely reflect a participant’s dislike of noise. To ascertain the cause behind the drop in productivity, the study undertook a second experiment whereby it randomised engine noise during tests of cognitive function and utilised the famous placebo method to also measure effort done on tasks.

The same increase in noise detrimentally affected cognitive function, yet it left effort task performance unaffected.

Such insightful results highlight that the situation is not about effort; but rather about our capacity to think clearly amidst the ruckus, racket, and commotion.

Noise, while commonly dismissed as a minor nuisance, exerts its substantial negative economic effects by impairing cognitive function even in small and micro businesses too.

Imagine the impact of a matatu driver playing loud music. It disrupts a rider’s ability to hold a conversation, concentrate on a book, or simply enjoy the ride.

But worse, it increases the likelihood of worse manoeuvring performance by the driver.

Now transpose that onto your entire workday filled with such noise. Could you deliver at your peak productivity, creativity, and efficiency?

Executives must realise the importance of how to design and manage workspaces. The research cautions against the tendency to overlook noise as a trivial concern.

Wide open plan noisy offices are not optimal. Emphasise considering noise as a crucial factor that can decrease worker productivity and thereby, economic outcomes.

Finally, in a fascinating twist, Joshua Dean examined individuals' understanding of the impact of noise on their own personal performance.

He elicited participants' willingness to pay for quieter working conditions while randomly changing whether they received compensation based on their performance.

Regardless of the wage structure, the participants’ willingness to pay remained the same, suggesting a lack of awareness that quieter working conditions could directly and immediately increase their performance pay.

Such an insight paints a scary yet vivid picture of our own human pro-self-bias that is often discussed here in Business Talk in the Business Daily.

Just as we readily excuse ourselves for our own shortcomings, we also neglect the impact of our environments on our performance.

We maintain the belief that our performance hinges solely on our skills and effort, not recognising the reality of how much our environment can influence us.

Yet we remain quick to blame others for their own mistakes or judge their environments far more harshly than our own.

If our environment affects our performance to such a significant extent, should we adapt accordingly?

Unfortunately, the study indicates we may not effectively do so on our own. Just as we may remain blind to our own biases, we may also fail to recognise the impacts of noise on our cognitive function and overall productivity.

Addressing such an issue may necessitate more than just individual awareness and action. It may call for organisational and regulatory policy intervention.

Possible measures could range from setting maximum noise levels in workplaces to providing workers with noise-cancelling equipment or designing workplaces that minimize noise pollution.

While from a macro perspective, should we demand better noise ordinances in our urban areas? Should we require construction sites, clubs, and outside events to dramatically lower allowed decibels?