09 Dec Can You Hear Me Now? The Important Balance for Open Office Acoustics

Setting up the ideal open office space isn’t easy. Workers will often resort to noise-cancellation headphones or sneaking into an unattended conference room to find a personal haven for themselves if things get too noisy. While complete silence isn’t necessary to concentrate on high priority tasks or have confidential meetings, there is a threshold where average sound levels have a discernible impact on employee performance and happiness. Finding the right materials and being mindful of office structure can help everyone create better working acoustic solutions.

How Noisy is Too Noisy?

The open office was designed for collaboration and creativity, but all this talking has to find its way somewhere. The level at which sound distracts the general workplace is measured by the privacy index (PI). According to an acoustical consultant in a report by GSA Public Buildings Service, if a colleague in an adjacent office were to read 100 random words out of a dictionary and you understood five of them, the space has achieved a PI of 95. By contrast, most office buildings have a PI of less than 80 (normal privacy). Understanding 20 percent of a conversation isn’t enough noise to be overly disruptive. Unfortunately, many open offices haven’t achieved even this baseline of acoustic privacy. And because sound is invisible, it’s more likely to be overlooked as a serious issue — at least in the short term.

How Modular Office Partitions Help the Cause

Office partitions equipped with sound absorbing materials allow for creating far more private common work areas and group meeting spaces. They are similarly effective at cutting high frequency (i.e. typing) and lower frequency (i.e. speaking) noises. Looking into similar materials for the ceiling can also have a dramatic effect on the privacy index.

Observe and Adjust Workplace Design Accordingly

End users should understand the acoustic behaviors within their own offices. Work flows and patterns should be documented so “zones” for private and collaborative work can be adjusted to promote acoustic privacy. Breakout areas, cafés and conference rooms can expect to have higher traffic and acoustic volume. Before treating an open office with new office partitions, planning out the interaction of the spaces in your office is a must-do.