Six Ways to Control Office Acoustics

Summer 2016

How can acoustical privacy be achieved in today’s open plan offices?

IS IT GETTING HARDER to think in the office? Gensler’s “2013 U.S. Workplace Survey” concludes that yes, workers are struggling to be effective. Among the chief problems: Office workers’ ability to focus at work is compromised by distractions, primarily from voices. Put simply, offices are too noisy.  

Chances are that you or your staff work in open plan offices, with few walls and more open meeting areas. And you loved it, at least at first. No walls means no silos. It makes possible increased productivity and innovation through more communication, contact and collaboration. The problem is, all that interaction comes at a price: It’s noisy, and big, open places can become big, open echo chambers. Collaborating relies on sharing ideas, exploring opportunities and bouncing the details around, but the resulting noise from discussions and activity often distracts others.

Distracting noise and a lack of acoustical privacy are at the top of workplace complaints today. They are also productivity killers: Performing knowledge-based tasks in workplaces where other people’s conversations are clearly audible can quash output by up to two-thirds, according to studies in Sound Business.

Still, many employers and employees alike love the openness, reduced visual barriers between work groups and amenities, the pantries, lounges and activity areas within today’s workplaces that keep staff happy and engaged. In the tech, media, information and advertising fields, these open plan workplaces are hugely popular. Who doesn’t want to work at a place that’s spacious, interactive, creative and even fun?

Most days, however, employees also want and need to focus. Gensler’s workplace performance study shows that knowledge workers in high-performing companies spend 54 percent of their time doing focused work, up from 48 percent in 2007. Today’s workers need to be able to think straight and concentrate in order to produce more, better work. How can they find peace and quiet while still having open and collaborative workspaces, which tend to be noisier?

Solving this acoustical challenge is a puzzle similar to the game of Jenga, in which the goal is to remove as many pieces as possible without toppling the tower. In the workplace, the goal is to remove as many walls and other dividers as possible without removing the key elements of acoustic privacy and comfort.

To win the game, first you need to understand worker expectations for privacy. Older workers, for example, prefer quieter offices than millennials. Second, recognize that not all kinds of work are the same. An office layout should reflect four unique modes of work — focus, learning, collaboration and socialization — which, at times, demand acoustic separation among them.

That’s fine for those building new office space. But what if your Jenga tower has already tumbled, and you or your tenants are trapped in an open office that lacks sound privacy and is constantly distracting? It’s time to put the pieces back together. Six simple steps can address this common challenge:

1) Mask Sound. The right level of ambient noise can boost perceived comfort, concentration and productivity. Raising the normal sound level can minimize the impact of otherwise distracting voices. The most effective ambient noise level is typically around 46 to 50 decibels. An existing sound system or an inexpensive retro-fit can add a balanced sound level throughout a workplace, and might also increase return on investment by doubling as a paging system.

2) Remove Voice Distractions. Keep the workplace open, but put up walls where sensible. Areas for work that includes socializing, learning and collaborating, where people can be expected to be talking to one another, should be separated from areas dedicated to “focus” work. Where practical, these areas should be enclosed or partially enclosed. Open cafes make for great recruiting photos, but enclosed cafes work better. Very low workstation partitions look clean and cool, but for good acoustics, higher cubicle partitions are generally better.

3) Add Acoustical Surfaces. Absorptive, soft and porous surfaces may be harder to clean and maintain than smooth ones, but they are ideal sound absorbers. In some offices, the walls, ceilings, columns and even desk dividers can be clad with various products and materials that improve office acoustics dramatically. These can also perform double duty by adding a pop of color and even a tackable work surface.

4) Fill the Holes. Poor construction or office planning may leave unwanted gaps, such as those around and under office doors or between glass panes in a conference room wall. Often, these gaps are not immediately obvious, like a gap above a ceiling or where two walls meet. Filling in the voids or tightly sealing small gaps can make a noticeable difference in noise levels.

5) Use Better Materials. Glass walls look great, and these see-through separations often improve visual communication and productivity in offices. But inexpensive glass may ruin the effect and fail to reduce sound transmission. Instead, use high-quality laminated glass or even double-glazed transparent walls.

These five steps can help improve the physical workspace, which is the first part of the challenge. The final piece of the puzzle is getting your team involved and making employees aware of their role in creating the workplace they need.   

6) Educate the Team. When changes are made, let your team know why. Show them the data on how these changes can reduce distractions and educate them about how all of the different work modes have a “home.” Do your socializing in the cafe or the lounge; if you need to do group work, use a closed conference room. Providing a clear location for each activity will reduce distractions and make for a happier, more productive workplace.

Considering all of the elements that go into creating a great workplace starts early. The workplace game of Jenga can be won with careful attention to how and where people work, and by providing the appropriate balance of both open and enclosed workspaces.

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Victoria Cerami

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Christopher Pollock