The sound of silence: pitch-perfect acoustics in the workplace

Bad acoustics are a by-product of busy open-plan offices that continue to thrive. Is it time for a change? 

Fine-tuning the open-plan office

Offices are inherently loud, open plan offices even more so. Loud conversations, phones ringing, keyboards clicking... Energy becomes dissonance and poor acoustics end up hurting wellbeing and productivity in the workplace.

By its virtue, sound reverberates with every surface. Picture an office with a polished concrete floor, an exposed concrete structure and a glazed facade - every ringtone and phone conversation bounce from one hard surface to the next until finally, it is absorbed by nothing other than the ears of the workers. Before long, employees lose focus and the workplace turns into chaos buzzing with distractions.

EchoPanel ® office partitions by Kirei

1. Sound absorption

Using sound absorbing materials can provide some acoustic relief and restore much-needed levels of peace and quiet in virtually every area of your office. Think reception areas, conference rooms, breakout spaces and open plan offices with activities ranging from phone intensive to focus work.

Where can you use sound absorption? 

Acoustical ceilings

The American Ag Credit Union headquarters in Santa Rosa, US boast a smooth visual ceiling with total acoustic performance, by Armstrong Ceiling Solutions

To absorb a significant amount of noise in your office, you can use high performing acoustical ceiling tile with an NRC rating (Noise Reduction Coefficient) of .75 or higher. The NRC rating indicates how absorptive a material is. Ratings of .50 (50 percent) are typical of an average acoustical ceiling tile while some of the best acoustical panels boast a rating of 1 (100 percent.)

Although not a favourite in terms of aesthetics, acoustical ceiling tiles are easy to drop into your standard ceiling grid, thus making for a quick fix to bad acoustics at the office.

Sound absorbing panels

Felt acoustic wall panels, Cleveland House, London. Designer: Anne Kyyro Quinn

If an acoustical ceiling is not the right design approach for your office, you might want to consider baffles or decorative acoustic panels, both available in ceiling and wall-mounted versions and in every shape or form imaginable.

How do you choose between baffles and ceiling panels? The main difference lies in the mounting. While panels are fixed horizontally, baffles are mounted vertically – the former allows for optimal sound absorption while the latter is perfect for busy ceilings or in offices with skylights that wouldn't be blocked.

Acoustic panels come in varying forms and sizes, from large discs to leaf-shaped panels and by placing them in strategic, loud places in the office, the noise levels can be significantly reduced. 

Cork board tiles

Composite cork tile. Lars Beller Fjetland for Spinneybeck

This is your ticket to blissful acoustics with added aesthetic value. Expanded cork wall sheets offer a perfect vibroisolation, thermal insulation and acoustic isolation. Cork panels can be left to shine or finished with paint, lacquer or wood stain.

Use warmly textured cork panels to lend character to your office and, depending on location, transform parts of it into a decorative yet functional tackboard for ideas to be pinned down. 

Acoustic office furniture

Soft Seating Collection for common areas, by Boss Design

Sound absorbing furniture is yet another creative way to manage poor acoustics in the workplace. From high-back acoustic sofas and privacy lamp shades to sound absorbing dividers and work bays, there is a plethora of innovative acoustic furniture designs on the market.

Perhaps best suited to intimate meeting spaces and waiting areas that are part of open plan office, wrap-around furniture offers a cocoon of silence that fosters privacy.

There is plenty of research that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations.

Julian Treasure

2. Sound masking

Interestingly, sound masking is the physical opposite of sound absorption – instead of removing sound, it adds it. It isn't about making the space noisier though, but rather about distracting the ear from other noise.

Small speakers placed in the ceiling or mounted to posts emit pre-programmed, frequency-appropriate white noise designed to mask conversations. The soft, uniform background noise elevates the ambient noise level so that conversations at a distance becomes unintelligible.

This technique is ideal in offices where quiet is too quiet, where the sound of a pen dropping or a bag of crisps being cracked open echoes throughout the space, making for an uncomfortably eerie environment.

A well-tuned sound masking system will deliver uniform sound at the right volume and within the right spectrum, halving the radius of distraction from an average of 13 meters to 6.

Cost-effective and easy to install, a sound masking system will not affect the aesthetics of your office; it will however highly improve its acoustics.

The Bridgespan Group office with integrated QtPro™ Sound Masking System by Cambridge Sound

Which acoustic solution is best for me?

Many variables come into play when deciding which solution is best for your office but the likely answer will often be: a little bit of both. Most open plan offices often sway between loud and dead quiet several times a day. In such instances, absorption would help subdue the loudness while masking would ensure the right levels of privacy between desks with the help of a quiet hum.

Fine-tuning your office may be hard but it is not impossible. With a little help from a professional, your office can quickly become an acoustic feast for all five senses.

We experience every space in five senses so it's strange that architects design just for the eyes

Julian Treasure
Opening photo: Architecture Research Office Collection - wool felt modular panels by FilzFelt

Acoustic panels for the office – a selection to inspire

How can you soundproof your office in style? 

With the proliferation of open plan offices, acoustic management is quickly becoming an absolute necessity for offices, and a sweet opportunity to shine for the acoustics market. In the field of sound absorption, the workplace industry is spoilt for choice with acoustic solutions, be it panels, tiles, baffles or dual-purpose acoustic dividers.

As for materials, acoustic specialists keep outperforming one another, revolutionising the business with eco-friendly options that include wool, natural wood fibres, cement and recyclable felt made from upholstery waste, all the while without impeding on aesthetics.

Beyond functionality, many decorative acoustic panels are designed with flexibility in mind: modular units, wall tiles in varying colours, shapes and sizes, and if the walls in your office are too busy, you can always opt for a freestanding unit or ceiling-mounted baffles.

Don't know where to start? Here's a selection of decorative acoustic panels to give you an idea of what's out there.

BAUX acoustic plank for UK law firm

Architect: Keppie Design. Architect/Designer: Gordon Yeaman

BAUX hexagon acoustic panels

Combining functionality with aesthetics has never been easier with the diverse range of BAUX acoustic panels. Vibrant colours and warm materials can transform virtually any wall into a functional work of art that also happens to reduce unwanted sound. Neat. 

BAUX wool wood acoustic panels

Architect Jerilyn Wright & Associates. Architect designer: Caleb Solomons. Calgary, Canada
Designer: Tatjana Fairhurst at design agency I-AM

If your office walls are too busy, you can opt for acoustic panels disguised as clever dividers. Whether it be standalone, hanging from the ceiling, this solution is perfect for open plan offices in need of both acoustic insulation and increased privacy.

Notes sound panel by Luca Nichetto for Offecct

Scale: super-modular standalone acoustic panel by Layer

Opening image: meeting room featuring BAUX acoustic wood wool panels

Rethinking the open-plan office – pros, cons, solutions

apple park open-plan office

Collaborative hive or disruptive arena? The open-plan office has long been at the heart of a heated debate.

Strange as it may seem, there was a time when 'open-plan' wasn't the norm. Although the first workspace to resemble an open-plan layout dates back to 1904, the open office as we know it truly boomed in the 1990s.

Designed to blur the lines between people and space, but also between work and play, the wall-less layout has caused controversy ever since. Is it a collaborative hive that fosters human interactions? Or is it a disruptive, unproductive arena where privacy is hard to get by?

open-plan-office-open-source-farm-tables
Open-plan office in Austin, Texas, designed to promote openness

Open-plan office: pros

Fosters collaboration

Naturally, the absence of walls makes communication and interaction that much easier. For millennial-dominated organisations that favour teamwork over isolated enclosed offices, open-plan spaces yield clear benefits. 

By virtue of their openness, such offices also help with team building. And although, as Susan Cain points out, it is often a challenge for introverts, sharing a workspace often brings people together, which contributes to an overall positive work atmosphere. 

Allows for more flexibility

The open-plan layout may well be the most suited to future-proof offices. Indeed, the unrestricted nature of open-plan offices makes structural changes easy to implement. If a business wanted to expand, restructure, or merge with another business, accommodating such changes would be much easier if there were no walls to tear down. 

Reduces costs

An open-plan office can benefit the business economically by reducing costs tied to construction, utilities and office equipment. For example, fewer walls mean less time and materials required to create the office space. Having a single work space also may reduce heating/cooling and electricity expenses thanks to an improved flow of air and light. Businesses can save on equipment investment as well, since communal spaces promote shared use of resources, such as printers, copiers and staplers.

apple park open-plan office
Apple park employees have voiced contempt over having to work in an open-plan office

Open-plan office: cons

Despite its popularity, the open-plan trend has long been suffering from a backlash, particularly from millennials entering the work scene. 

In 2016, Gensler's sought feedback from 1,210 employees at all job levels across 11 industries. The resulting UK Workplace Survey showed that “over 8 million UK employees work in open-plan environments and many of these environments are not designed to promote creativity and innovation.”   

So, why is the open-plan office bad for business and staff wellbeing? 

Bad acoustics

One of the most obvious obstacles to overcome in open offices is ambient noise, which leads to constant distractions that hurt productivity. Overlooking acoustics in the workplace can, therefore, affect not only wellbeing but also the business. 

Distractions

Coupled with poor acoustics, the misleading transparency of open office layouts also means that employees are more likely to be interrupted. This may result in emotional distress, a strong desire for isolation and higher absenteeism rates. 

Lack of privacy

Lack of privacy was one of the main precipitators of the infamous cubicle farm in the 1980s, and it is still a big concern today. Frustrating for both manager and employee, an all-too open layout hinders rather than fosters productivity.

The lack of boundaries translates into an ever-increasing need to get away. Managers take over meeting rooms, staff can only handle private matters away from supervision, even phone calls become a challenge. 

Hygiene

Just like a group of passengers squeezed into a chockful tube are more susceptible to a cold on their morning commute, sick co-workers are more likely to spread the germs in an office with no physical barriers. This may cause productivity to wane and, in worst-case scenarios, lead employees to take more sick days. 

Flexible open-plan office
Knoll Rockwell's unscripted furniture allows for flexibility and freedom of movement

Rethinking the open-plan office

Successful collaboration requires both group efforts and individual focused work

Designing for Focus Work, Haworth

In its 2016 UK Workplace Survey, Gensler highlighted a strong correlation between innovation and private spaces, favouring individual work over collaboration. The study revealed that innovators spend more time working alone than they do in face-to-face collaboration. 

That same year, another survey run by real estate advisor Savills and the British Council for Offices reported a clear dissatisfaction with the number of quiet spaces in their workplace. The What Workers Want survey highlights the discrepancy that exists between offer and demand for "focus workspaces."

As workplace needs evolve, how, then, can office landlords and designers reshape the open-plan office to meet end-user needs?

Habita coworking office in Istanbul
Breakout area doubles up as informal meeting space away from the main workstations

Activity-based working

The main principle behind activity-based working (ABW) is to give employees several options as to how and where they work at the office. This can be achieved by creating pocket areas of activity, each designed for the task at hand. 

The perfect activity-based office will include workstations, collaborative spaces in the shape of informal meeting spaces and conference rooms, as well as quiet focus areas. Striking that balance between open, semi-open, semi-private and private may be challenging, but it is very much in line with what millennials want. 

Cisco's San Francisco office is organised around semi-open pods for informal meetings

Breakout areas for socialising

The 'all work and no play' proverb first entered the workplace scene in the '00s. Today, breakout areas have become ubiquitous among modern organisations keen on blurring the line between work and play.

The socialising element associated with breakout areas also bears fruit from a business standpoint: it isn't outlandish for a coffee break to evolve into an informal yet productive brainstorming session. 

Google Dublin office breakout area
Coworkers socialise inside Google's unmistakably-coloured, sculptural 'O'

Acoustics

Fine-tuning the open-plan office helps significantly improve staff wellbeing and boost the overall prosperity of an organisation. This can be done with decorative acoustic panels, sound masking, or a carefully developed combination of both. 

Acoustic office furniture is another way to provide acoustic relief as well as a quiet environment suitable for focus work. 

office with aircone acoustic panels
Aircone acoustic panels form a sound and visual barrier inside RTR/Emerson Gothernburg's office

Open desks and reduced open-back visibility

Shared workstations with central charging points are gaining popularity in open offices where collaboration is valued. This kind of layout is focused inward, thus minimising open-back visibility and encouraging staff to interact. 

Most open desks can also be mounted with low partitions for an extra layer of privacy.

open plan office with Kano Opendesk
Open-plan office organised around open desks

Privacy screens

Privacy screens are a cost-effective solution to enhancing privacy without putting up rigid walls. Whether it be acoustic panels, glass manifestation or plant screens, such dividers allow for a flexible layout. 

And for those companies that don't want to sacrifice sensitive information for openness, there is always Casper Privacy Film - a high-tech obscuring film that makes screens inside a glazed conference room look black. 

In a nutshell...

Versatility is of the essence in modern open-plan offices.

Once billed as the ultimate office layout, traditional open-plan offices are now losing steam. In order to thrive, office design must do away with the fast-decaying open layout and embrace versatility by offering multiple pockets of activity tailored to specific tasks.