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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Opening photo: Architecture Research Office Collection - wool felt modular panels by FilzFelt
Functional breakout furniture with the comfort of a sofa.
Designed by leading UK designer and manufacturer Boss Design, The Soft Office Collection consists of Cocoon, Cega and Shuffle - three design seating solutions that work together to create flexible spaces in the modern office, where breakout furniture can make or break a space.
Created to highlight the importance of touchdown areas, The Soft Office Collection also makes a strong case for acoustics in the workplace.
Cocoon - for the collaborative work
Perfect for team meetings and collaborative tasks, Cocoon blends the function of a traditional desk with the comfort of breakout furniture, with the added benefit of total privacy. The high sides, back and roof form a cocoon that isolates the user from their surrounding environment. Set on wheels, Cocoon can easily be reconfigured and used individually or back-to-back to create private, booth-like meeting spaces.
Cega - for the private reflections
Cega is a standalone high-back seating solution designed to foster privacy. Its contoured design has been intentionally developed to reduce peripheral vision and external noise while the open top lets ambient light through for optimal use. Clever, innovative and highly functional, Cega's 360-degree swivel allows for enhanced privacy.
Shuffle - for the flexible spaces
Based on one simple unit that can be specified with a high or low back, Shuffle is a modular seating system that lends itself to both private and meeting spaces. Depending on your daily requirements and the task at hand, Shuffle allows you to change your office layout when needed, keeping your options open between casual breakout furniture and a more formal set-up.
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
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
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
Acoustic insulation in the form of lush green walls is a sound approach every landlord should consider.
Phone chatter, obnoxiously loud conversations in adjacent cubicles (we've all been there,) printers, photocopiers, HVAC systems... all distract and make employees less efficient. There are several ways to remedy noise levels in the workplace - sound absorption and sound masking are increasingly popular strategies, but what about living plants?
In 2015, an agricultural engineer of the University of the Basque Country conducted a research on the benefits of green walls as passive acoustic insulation for buildings. Zaloa Azkorra concluded that “the green wall showed a similar or better acoustic absorption coefficient than other common building materials, and its effects on low frequencies were of particular interest.”
Despite a rising number of studies highlighting the acoustic potential of plants, biophilic design is a resource yet to be explored by acousticians, particularly in sectors like the workplace, still in dire need of fine tuning.
NB: Biophilia refers to the innate love for the natural world, in other words, for nature and the outdoors.
How do plants regulate noise in the workplace?
To understand this, we must first brave the acoustic jargon and grasp the meaning of reverberation time.
Let's get technical for just a sentence. Reverberation time refers to the time it takes for a sound wave to die away to a level 60 decibels below its original level. And now, in English: when a source creates a sound wave in a room, what you hear is not only the sound wave spreading directly from the source, but also the sound reflecting from various surfaces around you.
Let's put this in context. The average reverberation time (now that you're an expert, we can call it RT) in an open plan office should be less than 1 second. In an enclosed office, the recommended RT is less than 0.6 seconds. In a meeting room, 0.6-0.8 seconds. What does this mean? Simply that an open plan office sporting an RT of 0.6 seconds will be significantly quieter than one with an RT of 0.9 seconds.
But how exactly can plants help reduce reverberation time, and therefore noise levels, in your office?
When sound hits a masonry wall, it bounces off the rigid surface and back to its source, like a solitary tennis ball between a racket and the wall. In contrast, when a sound wave hits a plant, the flexible surface will vibrate and transform sound waves into other kinds of energy. This is the same principle behind acoustic panels that absorb sound by converting sound energy into heatwaves.
There is a clear correlation between the way sound behaves and the surfaces around it. Think of a home with a carpet versus a home with solid floors. Usually, a carpeted room will prevent the sound from bouncing all over and creating echoes. Much like a carpet, plants and shrubbery are naturally uneven - covering surface areas with greenery will help accomplish the same feat. Think vines on walls, lawns, green walls, moss walls, etc.
How to use plants to reduce noise?
Rough bark and leafy plants are particularly effective but for maximum acoustic potential, you should also consider number of plants, location, size and surface area.
Larger planters contain more compost and provide more space for greenery. Combined, these two have a significant impact on noise reduction. As a result, your office benefits from better acoustics, and cleaner air. It's a win-win.
Tip: For better acoustics, arrange your planters throughout the space as opposed to clustering them. It's all about that surface area - the more spread out your plants are, the more opportunites there are for sound diffusion.
Focus on corners, edges and walls
Along the same principle, plants placed in the periphery of your office - corners, edges, walls - are more likely to reflect sound than plants placed in the middle.
Replace partitions with plant screens
Offices are inherently loud - open plan offices even more so. Oftentimes, this means partitions or rows of filing cabinets. What if you could use plants instead? Effective in reducing noise, and more attractive than your average office partition, plant screens are a great alternative.
If your tenants are reluctant to lose the filing cabinets, these and other surfaces can also be used to place small bushy plants in narrow containers.
Biophilic design guidelines for good acoustics
If utilised strategically, biophilic design can drastically improve acoustics in the office and its common areas.
There are few studies on the relationship between plants, architecture and acoustics. In a study performed by P. Costa of the South Bank University in London (1995,) Costa tested several single potted plants and combinations of plants in various areas in a room. His conclusions amount to a certain number of guidelines covered above.
If you accidentally skipped to this last paragraph, here's a summary:
Plants need to be large and healthy
Plants should preferably be leafy
Arrangements with a minimum of three plants seem more efficient than single plants
Spread out arrangements are better than a concentrated few plants.
Placing plants alongside walls has a greater impact on acoustics than if they're placed in the middle of a room
Wellbeing is becoming a buzzword in the workplace industry, and with reason – it is an essential component of the modern office and a real focus point for most businesses in 2019!
The workplace is not always a well-oiled machine, but studies have shown a clear correlation between wellbeing in the workplace and increased productivity. In other words, the way to a company’s success is a happy office.
Now, this is all well and good for business owners looking to boost profits, but what about landlords and property managers? Do the cogs start turning even before the lease is signed?
The answer is yes. And wellbeing in the workplace is no accident. Just a carefully constructed puzzle where everyone in the industry – from the designer, through the landlord, to the end-user – plays a role.
All it takes a pinch of modern thinking, a great deal of commitment, and about 10 elements to get right.
1. Naturally lit
You can’t always break a hole through the wall to let the sunshine in, but think about ways you can optimise your office layout so as to take maximum advantage of natural light.
Where possible, workstations should be located within 20 to 25 feet of side windows. Any further than that and daylight almost vanishes. And if your office space, or parts of it, is lacking windows, you can always opt for integrated lighting systems like Ketra to mimic natural light.
Gone are the days of the sedentary office. Flexibility is key in today’s work environment. Employees like standing desks. They like having control over the layout of their workstations.
So how can the workplace adapt to its users’ needs? Modular furniture is a place to start: breakout furniture that doubles up as an informal meeting space, portable furniture and reconfigurable systems to facilitate the process if a company changes location.
The office layout can be adaptive as well. Big hangar-like offices, for example, can benefit from mobile partition screens to be used according to the users’ needs. Demountable partitions or folding walls are the perfect way to temporarily break up the space, or open it up for a large conference.
The more flexible the office is, the easier to implement changes it is. Anticipation is the watchword of the modern office.
3. Finely tuned
Bad acoustics are a by-product of busy open-plan offices. Unsurprisingly, noise is distracting and harmful to productivity.
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 ceiling-mounted baffles a freestanding unit to double up as a divider.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of a good office branding is the opportunity to tell your story.
But strong branding can also make a real difference to a company’s image. It is the face of a business. It makes it recognisable to clients and employees. And it boosts wellbeing in the workplace by making for an inspiring work environment where employees feel an emotional connection with their surroundings.
So much more than slapping a logo on a wall, strong office branding should reflect the corporate culture of the company and portray its values and identity.
A well-thought-out branding strategy also helps organisations stand out from the crowd and, if used in key spaces like the reception area, it can help make a great first impression upon clients and prospects.
5. Close to nature
Wellbeing in the workplace would hardly exist without the fresh use of greenery. Being close to nature has proven to have a positive impact on our mood, and with 35% of our total waking hours spent at work, a positive mindset sure is important.
So, what can you do to add greenery to your office? A simple living wall in the workplace can improve air quality and acoustic levels as well as promote a sustainable image that will speak to your green customer. If a living wall sounds too big an investment, evenly spread-out planters will help too.
Another way to bring the office closer to nature is by growing vegetables in the breakout area. Outlandish as it may seem, innovative products like Herbert make this very possible and effective.
From wind turbines and CO2 monitors to foam flushing toilets and treadmill desks, office buildings around the world are raising the bar for sustainability and innovation.
Billed as the most sustainable office building in the world – a good standard to match, we thought – The Edge (pictured below) boasts a sophisticated design which, coupled with the use of innovative technologies, resulted in an astonishing 98.36% BREEAM score.
Home to Deloitte’s headquarters, the office building harvests rainwater to flush toilets and water its gardens. It also gives staff full control over temperature and light, both regulable via a smartphone app.
What’s more, The Edge also produces its own energy through the use of 800 solar panels and its roof boasts a floor-to-floor scanner that detects when rooms are not being used, thus helping reduce electricity consumption.
If you hadn’t guessed it, sustainably viable offices are not only good for morale, they’re also good for business. Oh, and the environment, too.
We’ve talked about the importance of bringing the outside in. We’ve also seen how sustainable office design contributes to the general wellbeing of employees. But a happy office goes beyond green and eco-friendly – it must also promote a healthy way of working.
Developers can make a big impact here; it all starts with the relevant facilities. How about a gym at the office? If you include a gym, you will have to include showers. And locker rooms. And what about the increasing number of workers who cycle to work every day? They might need bike storage facilities indoors.
Smaller offices could negotiate memberships with local gyms or personal trainers. They can also join forces with other companies to chase a better deal with a larger fitness supplier.
The modern office needs technology to thrive. This can translate in the use of automation systems that allow users to control lighting, HVAC and even outdoor shutters for optimum lighting conditions.
High technology also shines through the integration of personalised lighting systems that challenge the one-light-for-all principle. In this instance, employees can control the overhead lighting in their immediate environment. All they would need for this is, you guessed it, a smartphone.
In large offices, gathering location data of all employees can help you determine which areas are more used than others. This information can be gathered through the use of tiny devices called beacons, and shared with the lighting department to help you run a ‘greener’ office.
For everyone’s comfort, office furniture must be wired too. Plug-and-play workstations are trending in offices with limited space. Meeting rooms are equipped with built-in outlets. You get the gist.
After all, millenials don’t have time to run out of power!
9. Filled with art
Art is a conversation starter. Made to engage with those who notice it, it is an intellectual asset that fosters interaction and critical thinking.
According to a 2013 research by the British Council for Offices, 61% of workers agree that artwork inspires them to think and work more creatively.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In recent years, this old proverb has weaved its way into the work culture where the importance of downtime has not only been recognised but also promoted.
More and more concerned with wellbeing in the workplace, companies are incorporating ‘fun’ in the office. Game rooms, ping pong tables and slides in lieu of stairs are no strangers to the work environment as forward-looking offices are slowly turning into carefully balanced playgrounds.
Unsurprisingly, breakout areas are also a key part of the fun. More than a simple room where staff can take five, breakout spaces are becoming fully integrated little hubs designed to foster creativity and collaboration while offering a space away from the screen. From relaxed, shared workspaces to impromptu meeting points, dedicated breakout spaces can also double as scenes for catered lunches, thus allowing companies to save on venue hire. Quite a few perks for one space!
A ‘Workplace Wellbeing Special’ would be incomplete without the mention or two about the future. While catering to the employees’ present needs, a successful office space must also be able to anticipate their future needs. This means dynamic space planning, leaving room to grow and embrace change.
Embedding flexibility in the workspace is key. As previously mentioned, this can refer to adaptive furniture but it is also a reminder that people move too. And they should be encouraged to work in different settings.