Solving the Office Noise Problem

Why we shouldn't stay silent on acoustics in open-plan offices

Whether it’s phones ringing, colleagues chatting or the low rumble of air purifiers, open-plan offices can be noisy places. Throw in new technologies designed to enhance interaction – speaker phones, voice-activated devices and online video conferencing, for example – and what was once background noise fast becomes a cacophony.

Open layouts pose particular challenges when it comes to aural distractions, which can affect everything from productivity to health. Open-plan presents numerous advantages, from a cost efficient employee-to-square footage ratio to a physical leveling of hierarchies to help encourage communication and collaboration. Ironically, however, their advantages also present a pitfall: open offices get us talking. How can design combat these issues without compromising the quality of the space?

Even the most business-focussed of chatter can be incredibly distracting, significantly impacting productivity. A study for the American Society of Interior Designers found that 70% of polled workers agreed: their productivity would increase if noise decreased. And yet a follow-up study found that 81% of business executives placed tackling office noise low on the agenda. It’s fair to assume that this latter group is the minority: higher-ups, presumably, most of whom will likely have their own offices. But what about the rest of the workforce?

While distractions represent a potentially costly outcome of noisy work environments, there is a more insidious threat still: stress. Simply put, for employees who are healthy, productive and focussed, office acoustics matter. Our designers can’t stop casual chit chat (and nor would we want to), but the good news is that there are several solutions available to eliminate or reduce problems brought about by poor acoustics in open-plan offices.

Design suggestions for how to keep the noise down

First and foremost, consider the materials. Unsurprisingly, a carpeted floor as opposed to wood, concrete or tiles does a great job in absorbing noise. Polyurethane cushion-backed carpets, for example, are not only comfortable but also limit the sound of footfall. When it comes to acoustics, it’s not just what’s underneath that matters, but what’s overhead. Our design team recommends choosing a ceiling with high absorption efficiency, also known as articulation class (AC), a rating system for the speech privacy performance of a ceiling in an open-plan environment. Broadly speaking, a rating below 150 is poor; above 180 is good.

Office layout also impacts a space’s acoustics. Imagine sound following the same path as sight: by limiting the line-of-vision between colleagues or teams, you’ll also reduce distractions and create privacy. Solutions needn’t be as extreme as individual cubicles; movable screens, panels or smart seating plans can also be effective.

Finally, consider a sound masking unit or system. Typically installed in ceilings, the technology works by generating low-level noise to block out the sound of normal conversation, without causing distraction.

Companies can no longer stay silent on the problem of office acoustics. For productive, healthy employees, the message is loud and clear: noise is a distraction we can’t afford.

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