Since the introduction of the open office plan as a design option for the workplace, the debate continues whether it’s been helpful or harmful to productivity. Supporters list improved collaboration and creativity, and an easy office set-up as some of the benefits of this office design.
On the other hand, an open office presents several disadvantages, one of them being noise distraction. According to a survey conducted by Steelcase and Ipsos, an average person loses 86 minutes per day due to noise distractions. Several employees working in an open office space struggle with the constant noise created by chatter, coughs, ringtones and other sounds that come with sharing a workplace with others.
Why configure open office acoustics
Optimising workplace acoustics is a solution often overlooked when considering how to make an open office as productive as possible.
Businesses can reap a couple of benefits from optimising office acoustics, the most obvious one being improved productivity. The less noise heard across the office, the less likely employees will become distracted. This leads them to focus better on their work.
Managing office acoustics also supports privacy. Noise travels faster in an open space, and people can unintentionally listen in on a conversation they’re not supposed to hear. With optimised acoustics, no one will feel uncomfortable about being eavesdropped on by colleagues, whether they’re discussing business or personal matters.
Determining noise levels for workspaces
A loud workplace doesn’t necessarily mean that employees are working inefficiently, and a silent office doesn’t mean everyone is focused on their tasks. Assigning different noise levels for specific work areas helps in creating comfortable acoustics within an open space.
Noise distraction should be minimal in areas where employees are completing assignments solo. Noise levels can be louder for common rooms and areas where workers are encouraged to take on activities that require collaboration. Areas for private meetings need materials that block sound from adjacent rooms.
Make the most out of other areas in your building where people can talk, aside from the office desk. For example, discuss with architects how you can inject personality into communal space and staircase design, to create the opportunity for staff to stop and chat in between departments.
Designing office acoustics
Hard, reflective surfaces and high ceilings are major culprits of poor sound quality. Sound bounces off surfaces, so consider them when optimising office acoustics. Using sound-absorbing materials limits the echo effect. Carpeting and screens covered with sound absorbing materials help reduce noise distractions in the office. Acoustic panels added on individual workstations provide employees with privacy.
Consider installing sound-masking systems to adjust noise levels within the office. By adding a soft background sound, the radius of noise significantly reduces. An employee will not feel self-conscious when they suddenly speak up in a quiet office room. The sound-masking system also reduces the volume of chatter, allowing employees to concentrate on their work.
With many companies operating in an open office, it’s unlikely that the design trend is going away anytime soon. Architects and interior designers work closely with companies to maximise the design benefits of an open-plan layout, whilst reducing some of the inherent disadvantages that affect productivity.