Coping with the Nuisance of Noise in the Workplace

There is no silver bullet to the perennial problem of office noise, but there are plenty of best practices designers can turn to.

An office where the use of absorptive materials like carpet, acoustical ceiling tiles, and upholstered surfaces helps absorb the background sound.

Photo courtesy Gensler 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey

The secretary making a thousand copies on the hallway printer or the marketing manager on a call in an uninsulated conference room are the kinds of acoustical issues one must consider in office design. In fact, how well an office accommodates the various sounds in it can make or break a space. That’s not an overstatement, as office noise is often tied to worker performance.

About two thirds of employees are not satisfied with the amount of noise at their primary workspace, according to a survey conducted by global design firm Gensler. And acoustic design has been shown to improve worker concentration while decreasing both error rates and stress levels. As such, experts suggest investing in noise absorption and covering strategies to create acoustical privacy especially in open-plan environments.

“There are very few walls or other devices to truly block sound in open environments,” says Allison McKenzie, director of sustainability at SHP Leading Design. “And absorbing sound is typically accomplished through absorptive materials like carpet, acoustical ceiling tiles, or upholstered surfaces.” These kinds of materials help absorb portions of sound such as conversations and machine-clinking to prevent them from traveling into adjacent spaces.

A felt canopied cabana inside the Giant Pixel offices in San Francisco. Partial acoustic and visual separation made possible by felt material manufactured by Filzfelt.

Photo Courtesy Fizfelt

Covering strategies, on the other hand, introduce white or pink noise into an environment that mask unwanted sounds by creating a constant background “hum.” Tuning a portable desk radio to an AM sports talk channel at a low volume is an example of such noise masking, because the constant muttering of voices creates a barrier between one’s immediate area and the rest of the office. When used effectively, off-the-shelf sound generators or HVAC systems can obscure noises from both the inside and outside sources.

“The truth of the matter is that there is no magic bullet,” says McKenzie. “But the best open-office environments are always those where acoustical performance impacts all of the decisions we make for the space during the design phase.”

See our top acoustical solutions in our June cover story, “Workplace: A to Z.”

Categories: Sponsored, Workplace Interiors