Achieving Acoustic Comfort in the Office 1

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Thursday, March 19th, 2015
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An unknown worker, in response to the New York Times article titled Beyond the Cubicle, wrote the following internet comment:

“I currently work in a cubicle – my neighbours are a man in the midst of a divorce, a woman with a problem child, another woman with an elderly parent who should be in a care facility. The only cure for my personal hell would be a quiet room with a door. Perhaps my employer would then get his money’s worth from my workday… did I mention that I am across from the copier?”

According to a study by sound consultant Julian Treasure, if you can hear someone talking while you are reading or writing, your productivity in the workplace can dip by up to 66 per cent.

Treasure has been calling attention to the “invisible architecture” of sound. His research suggests that trying to perform knowledge-based tasks in a space in which other people’s conversations are clearly audible is difficult, with productivity being degraded by up to two thirds. Treasure’s white paper Building in Sound also found that sound masking technology improved employee focus by 47 per cent and short-term memory accuracy by almost 10 per cent.

Another study found that noise in the office also correlated to increased stress hormone levels and a lower willingness to engage with others. This creates a tense catch-22, given the trend toward shared space and the fact that open offices are intended to foster a culture of communication and social interaction.

So what is acoustic comfort and how do you achieve it in the modern office?

“Acoustical comfort” is achieved when the workplace provides appropriate acoustical support for interaction, confidentiality, and concentrative work. The foundation of acoustical comfort in the office is the Privacy Index (PI).

To work out the PI, imagine going into an office, closing the door and reading 100 words at random out of the dictionary.

If your colleague in the adjoining office can understand five words out of 100, the office has achieved a PI of 95. This is the definition of confidentiality.

Most commercial office buildings provide a PI less than 80. Sound travels from one space to the next through numerous weaknesses in the built environment. The sound of speech passes between the joins between ceiling and wall, through lights and air conditioning components.  Sound energy can find every opening, no matter how small.

A PI of 80 defines normal privacy.

The Privacy Index

The Privacy Index

There are three key areas of equal importance that need to be addressed to create acoustic comfort:

  • Behaviour
  • Design
  • Acoustic treatment

Consistently integrating all three will deliver a workplace that is comfortable, sustainable and supportive of both interactive and quiet work.

The following steps can be followed to help achieve acoustic comfort:

Behaviour 

1. Identify the work patterns within the office. Observe the balance of concentration and interaction amongst your team to create zones to support each.

2. Identify the pattern and need for speech privacy – how many ‘secure’ acoustic spaces are needed?

3. Support behavioural change: adopt mobile technologies and multiple workplaces to allow the workplace patterns you have identified to be successful.

4. Create protocols aimed at reducing distractions and the appropriate use of space.

Design 

5. Zone appropriately – have a layout strategy that keeps incompatible functions apart.

6. Planning – What is the effect on neighbouring workstations when locating supporting activities such as printers and copiers, coffee bars and eateries, entries to conference rooms where a queue could be anticipated.

7. Furniture – select furniture that contributes to acoustic comfort. For example, high partitions actually contribute to noise levels rather than reducing them because people wrongly assume they are enclosed, and therefore don’t monitor the volume of their conversations. Lower partitions encourage awareness of other workers whilst also allowing for light and views.

Acoustic Treatment 

8. Choose sound-absorbing walls and ceilings. In conference, meeting and training rooms, aim for a minimum 80 per cent PI. For open workspaces, floors, walls, window coverings, and ceilings can all be used to absorb sound. Specific solutions include acoustic ceiling tiles, carpeting, furniture finishes, curtains, and other ceiling treatments such as hanging ‘clouds’, banners, artwork and acoustical plasters.

9. Sound masking systems are another key strategy. There are many types of masking systems available, ranging from a table-top fountain to complicated electronic systems with multiple time of day settings. There are even sound-masking privacy apps you can download to play through headsets.

10. Look at using sound-rated wall construction materials. Talk to your architect about the appropriate materials for use in offices that require confidential speech privacy to teleconferencing rooms and open space partitioning.

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  1. Bianca Brazile

    Excellent article recognising that not all over design is made equal and this force to move to an open plan layout for example is affecting acoustics and in turn productivity. I believe more thought needs to go into the workplace and the tasks at hand – again, designing for people not "collaboration" or design trends.