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Some sound advice on office acoustics and our ongoing love of open plan

Posted on November 22, 2015 by Paul Goodchild

In spite of what some may tell you is now inevitable, especially given growing awareness of the problems of office acoustics, the love affair with the open plan office is unlikely to be broken off any time soon. Not only is open plan perceived to be more conducive to communication and less bound by any ideas about status, it takes up around half the space of cellular offices and the costs of fitting out a cellular office are around 25 per cent higher than an equivalent open plan space. If for no other reasons, commercial considerations mean that largely plan offices will remain the default form of most British workplaces for the foreseeable future.

As well as the general propensity of organisations to adopt the open plan, other forces have made us increasingly aware of the challenge of providing a productive acoustic environment for people. The shrinking of workstation footprints, the greater use of shared spaces and the now universal uptake of mobile phones and other technology has focussed attention on both acoustic and visual privacy. We’ve been aware of the associated problems for some time but the problem was finally nailed by researchers at the University of Sydney who last year published the results of a survey of nearly 43,000 US office workers in a reent issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

The researchers Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney applied their research to assess some of the most commonly held beliefs about open plan offices, especially the assumption that they ‘facilitate communication and interaction between co-workers, promoting workplace satisfaction and team-work effectiveness’.

What the research shows is that the thing that bothers people most is not noise level per se but rather their lack of privacy, both in terms of hearing what other people are saying and having their own conversations overheard. While a quarter of the survey’s subjects said they were dissatisfied with the level of noise at work, over half of the huge sample of workers in open plan offices cited their lack of acoustic privacy as a major frustration at work. This made it easily the most important issue facing workers according in the survey.

In the context of the research, this goes against one of the arguments most commonly made in favour of open plan offices, namely that by opening up the workplace people are free to exchange information and ideas. What happens in practice according to the researchers is that it is those workers with a higher degree of privacy who feel most likely to share with colleagues, safe in the knowledge that information is only going to those intended. They conclude: “Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction”.

This makes the point loudly and clearly that when it comes to making people more productive and happy at work, the most important thing you can offer them is the right level of acoustic and visual privacy. They need to work with their colleagues and enjoy the benefits of interacting with other human beings but there is a better balance to be struck than the one many have right now.

Problems and solution with office acoustics arise first at an architectural level. Sound is prone to bounce off ceilings and follow sight lines so the way a building is designed can have a significant impact on noise levels in its interior. The type and shape of a building is often beyond the control of the organisations that inhabit them so, regardless of its architecture, there are several basic elements to address to deal with problems of noise in a building, including ceiling systems, sound masking systems, systems furniture, flooring and interior design.

Design is becoming increasingly important as firms reduce the amount of space they allocate to people in the office. Something as basic as the move from bulky CRT monitors to flat screens and laptops has helped the average workstation to shrink by over 25 per cent in the last few years, saving space and money, but with the potential for counter-productive cramming. Then again, some organisations are actively looking at alternatives to workstations for some staff, creating offices that have more in common with cafes and clubs than traditional offices.

Whatever the culture and physical environment  there are solutions available for those who design and manage workplaces, including:

Ceiling systems

High performance ceiling products with significant articulation class (AC) ratings and noise reduction coefficients (NRCs) are readily available. AC ratings determine how well a ceiling reflects sound. NRCs determine how well a surface absorbs sound. It is also important to avoid HVAC and lighting elements that can act as reflectors of sound.

Sound masking systems

Sound masking systems generate a level of white noise that helps to minimise the disruption caused by speech and sudden or ‘impact’ noises.

 Furniture and partitions

All furniture will absorb some level of sound, but screens and partitioning is by definition particularly effective. Properly specified, such ‘interior architecture’ may absorb around 85 per cent of ambient, intrusive sound, which is particularly important where teams who may need to communicate on an ad hoc continuous basis are situated near to people from other disciplines or who need to work quietly. Recent exhibitions such as Orgatec and Neocon have also introduced a new generation of products aimed at helping people to create acoustically well-balanced workplaces, including many that are unmistakeably cubicles.

 Flooring

As a general rule, carpet is better at absorbing noise than hard flooring. A very thick carpet with a very thick underlay can absorb as much as 70 per cent of ambient sound, but that is seldom the case and even at that level can leave a significant residue of noise.

 Interior design

It’s not just about products. The average workstation footprint has shrunk by over 25 per cent in the last few years, saving space and money, but with the potential for counter-productive cramming.  A well designed layout will minimise sight lines and also group people sensibly. It will take account of trends such as higher occupation densities and accommodate for them. Specifying quiet work rooms and break out spaces can be essential (if properly monitored and managed) so that people can work in the right environment for the job in hand. The intelligent use of screens and partitions helps to provide the right balance of privacy and interaction.

 Culture

Certain organisations, like certain people, are inherently louder than others. In many cases, noise is important for creating a buzz and turning the workplace into a soundless crypt with people working in bubbles will be counterproductive. So it’s important that the physical environment you create is a true reflection of your culture and that your goal should always be to get rid of irrelevant noise.