A detailed look at the use of acoustics in modern offices, and how to make bright open plan spaces still work productively for conducting business.
Many companies are unaware that making a few adjustments to correct the acoustic landscape of the office, can have wide-reaching benefits such as improved staff productivity and concentration. With open plan office spaces being the popular choice for many companies, there is much subject to debate on the productivity and suitability for fast paced working environments (Autex). Despite this, due to factors such as limited space and high rental costs, open plan offices are here to stay which means suitable adjustments must be made to make them suitable for conducting business.
With a lack of private space, open offices can produce negative effects if not designed correctly, Well Working has reported that on average, employees lose two working hours a day due to distractions in the office affecting their ability to concentrate. Understandably changing the type and shape of the building is beyond control, however several basic elements to deal with visual and acoustic distractions can have profound impacts on the productivity and well being of employees.
Work Space Zones
When designing office space it is important to understand what the space is used for, by understanding the activities taking place, you can understand how the office should be set up. A recent study has highlighted that the three main working activities are: Focused work 70%, Collaboration 23% & Social work 7%; each of which requires a very different working environment.
This means that there should be at least three separate areas of the office each dedicated to one of these activities. Each of the activities requires very different visual and acoustic environments for optimum productivity. To create the zones, visual and acoustic barriers need to be prevalent to identify definite lines between zones. Rather than the office being a large area with delegated desks and separate private meeting rooms, it should instead resemble a free moving system where people can choose the most appropriate zone for the work that the type of work that they are doing.
Focused Work – Acoustic Requirements
The office zone for focused work needs to be an area of minimal distraction with high acoustic absorption. There should be individual work spaces with visual barriers such as room dividers and acoustic furniture to reduce noise transmission from other zones.
Collaborative Work – Acoustic Requirements
Collaborative space needs to be suitable for high noise levels, will low acoustic reverberation and sounds transfer should be completely absorbed to as not to reach other zones.
The Fundamentals of Acoustics
Initial noise levels
In areas of mixed working activities, a cocktail party effect can occur, where people need to raise their voice due to noise levels, which then in turn means that the next person has to raise their voice to compensate, leading to continually rising noise levels (QuietStone). This is not productive at all for focused work, which should instead be completely separated away from noise levels reducing the distractions for the workers. There should be sufficient acoustic barriers between working zones to ensure that no noise is transferred between zones, ensuring that the focused working area remains quiet.
Reverberation times from lack of sound absorption
Noise reverberation occurs when sounds are reflected of hard surfaces around the office, including the walls and ceilings. This raises the noise levels of the room and reduces speech privacy and intelligibility. Figures 1, 2 & 3 show how Noise Reverberation can be reduced through installing sound absorbing furniture.
Acoustic Solutions For the Modern Open Plan Office
Screens between desks can reduce visual and acoustic distractions allowing employees to remain focused with minimal visual and acoustic distractions. The screens act as a sound absorbing barrier reducing reverberation from other areas of the room.
Acoustic wall tiles reduce reverberation by absorbing sounds rather than them ‘bouncing’ off the walls. Acoustic wall tiles are a great solution to improve the acoustic environment of the office, the tiles absorb noise within the room reducing the noise reverberation and in turn improving the noise levels and resulting in a more ambient acoustic environment with minimal distraction.
There has been an emerging market also in the recent years for ‘pod like’ spaces in open offices, these small spaces can provide extra private space for meetings or important phone and video calls. With high levels of acoustic barriers, these spaces are perfect for private conversations, or for holding meeting in the office without distracting other employees with the noise levels.