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Sound Advice: Finding Peace in Open Office Environments

By Dustin Griesmann

Finding peace in an open office environment can be a challenge. Cotter Manager of Acoustics Dustin Griesmann explains acoustical strategies to improve the open office experience.

How to create a greater sense of acoustic comfort and minimize distractions within the open office concept

When it was first introduced, the open office concept was the solution to helping people burst out of their privacy bubble and collaborate with each other. But recent studies show just the opposite is happening. In a 2018 study by Harvard University, researchers found that face-to-face interaction decreased and productivity dropped by 15%, due to lack of privacy and increased noise. Still skeptical? Simply google the words “open-plan office” and read through the flood of “why open offices are bad” articles. As the open office concept continues to evolve, we see that people are more likely to wear headphones in the office and many choose to work from home as a way to avoid the issue altogether.

Nevertheless, the design is still a popular option, especially when efficiently accommodating a growing staff into an ever tightening footprint, a problem our office recently faced. As our team expanded, we realized we didn’t have enough room to seat everyone in the existing configuration. Not only were we running low on space, but the office had become noticably noisier. Moving wasn’t a desirable option, so we had to figure out how to make the open office concept work for us. There were several design elements to consider, but we knew adequate sound privacy would be crucial. Though it’s often overlooked, acoustical comfort plays a major role in the success or failure of an office layout. Elements such as the right furniture materials, wall partitions, adequate sound absorption on the ceiling, and even plants helped to improve the acoustics of our office space.

Dividing the Space

Our first challenge was figuring out the best way to optimize our office to accommodate more people, without making it inconvenient or intrusive. Our solution was to create shared work spaces using additional file cabinets to split the existing long desks into two adjacent workstations. We also installed padded acoustic panels between these adjacent spaces to offer some privacy and provide appropriate sound absorption. In the end, everyone had a place to sit, in a layout that encouraged collaboration. A second challenge was minimizing the impact of constant, and sometimes loud, conversations happening around you. Clearly, we needed a private, quiet place for phone calls. How did we solve this problem? By setting up a huddle room.

A Quiet Place

Things can get pretty loud in an office, and no matter how hard you try, it’s difficult to block out the noise. It also affects our health. Being exposed to excessive noise can stress out your body, reduce productivity, and make you tired. In our case, people were taking lots of calls throughout the day adding to the daily noise level, and our conference rooms were not always available. Having a quiet space where people could take calls or step away for a conversation was ideal for us.

We converted an unused office into a small huddle area for this person. Because it’s located away from the workstations and has a heavy door, our “acoustical oasis” has been warmly received by our team. This dedicated space has definitely improved the functioning level of acoustic comfort in our very lively office environment.

A Cushy Chair and Oxygenated Air

The furniture you pick for your office doesn’t just have to look nice. It should help absorb sound as well. How you place the furniture and the material it’s made from can have a great impact on the acoustics in the workplace. Most of the furniture in our office has soft, cloth-covered cushions. It’s not only comfortable, but the material helps introduce more sound-absorbing elements to the space.

Plants can also have a positive impact on your workspace. Aside from adding some much needed green to an office, they also improve the air quality and help to make people feel more relaxed. Surprisingly, they also help control office noise. Similar to other sound control materials, plants can absorb as well as diffuse unwanted sound reflections. In light of this, we strategically placed several plants that can survive in low lit areas around the office. And it’s a great way to brighten up the space.

Keep them Separated

Sometimes the noisiest thing in the office is not the people, but the office equipment. Printers, copiers, and computers emit their own symphony of noise. Over time most of us grow accustomed to their mechanical sounds, but it could be affecting you in ways you don’t realize. While you can’t completely silence the machines without turning them off,  positioning them in a more remote area can help reduce the distraction they produce.

Most of our computer equipment and servers are stored in a separate IT room away from the general office area. Having it all behind locked doors helps cut down on the hums and whirs it produces. We also keep the copier and postage meter in its own area for the same purpose. Isolating these items minimizes the negative impact of these typically harsh sounding noise sources. But wait! Having things too quiet doesn’t work either. By reducing the background noise level in the office, you can actually increase the speech intelligibility and level of distraction of the conversations happening around you. In an effort to provide some speech privacy, a sound masking system was installed in the main collaborative workspace. This system introduces additional background noise in the frequency range of speech to mask (or reduce the intelligibility of) distracting conversations so you don’t focus on the surrounding noise.

What Happens After the Redesign

For an open-plan office redesign to be successful, people need to understand the dedicated use of each space. Otherwise, people will use areas the way they see fit. Once our office was finished, an email was sent out detailing what changed and how the new spaces should be used. This helped us make a smooth transition as we grew accustomed to the changes. It’s proven to be a success. The huddle room is a hit; more people have been using it for phone calls rather than using a conference room or standing in the kitchen. And the minor changes, like adding acoustic panel dividers and plants, have helped to reduce the overall distraction of noises in the office.

Open-plan office designs certainly offer some challenges, but if you take the time to consider what your office needs, the needs of your employees, and how to go about changes, there are ways to make the layout work. We took the time to figure out our office problems and the best way to address them. Now, we have a space that promotes collaboration, yet still offers privacy and peace.