We’re Still Waiting on a Solution to the Noise Problem of Open Offices

A new white paper from Allsteel investigates this and other workplace-specific challenges.

I admit it. I tend to overuse the phrase, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” So here I go again. I’d like to point out that we need to bring two issues together when it comes to getting things done:  We need to temper our ability to do our work digitally and in places that aren’t offices and at the same time appreciate the role played by shared physical places in enabling performance.

In the first few pages of our Network paper, the authors emphasize the value of face-to-face interactions: They note that “the more we live in a digital world, the more important it becomes to reconnect with the physical environment. We’re spending more and more time working, socializing and playing in virtual settings. Communities of practice are expanding, effectively combining social and information networks. Games are becoming incredibly realistic—some in terms of sight and sound, while others replicate real life with virtual pets, babies, families, gardens. However… there are certain skills that are critical to successful face‐to-face social interaction, and we only master those skills by using them. So the physical environment remains vital to communication, interaction and developing skills”.

Google is known for thoughtfully provisioning workers: Visitors to any office can expect to find Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and “huddles”; video games, pool tables and pianos; cafes and “microkitchens”; and good old fashioned whiteboards for spur-of-the-moment brainstorming.

They also point out—and I wholeheartedly agree – that we have yet to master designing for face-to-face interaction and collaboration. And I would add that we haven’t solved the distraction that noise can create, either.

Inspired by our conversations with the authors of Network, we set out to find patterns that define the most common shortcomings of collaborative office spaces and so we asked, what are the most frequently repeated complaints workers have about spaces intended for group activities? There are some obvious answers: they can’t find one when they need it, or the space lacks the necessary technology. Other issues were more subtle: Group spaces create noise for nearby workstations, are too formal (or informal), are not accessible for the duration of the project, and a result workers waste time setting up and packing up.


We noticed that problems fell into three buckets: Issues related to planning—such as the location of collaborative spaces in the building and how they relate to public and shared areas vs. neighborhoods; those related to provisioning—the attributes the space needs to best support its intended uses; and those related to managing or using—whether the space is ‘owned’ by any particular department or team, whether it’s schedule-able, or able to be reconfigured—how easily and by whom. There’s additional information on each issue—and a few helpful anecdotes—here.

Our goal is to give designers and planners a checklist to develop more effective spaces for interaction and collaboration.

I also want to recommend Sound Matters, a white paper recently released by the GSA on acoustics in the office. The publication aims to show that there is a way out of a beleaguered cubicle worker’s “‘personal hell’… but without a room, and without a door.”  It acknowledges that as the federal government–and many private organizations­—transition to greater density and fewer private enclosures, acoustic performance will need to transition from a “side issue” to a “core issue.”

Jan Johnson, FIIDA, is VP of Design and Workplace Resources at Allsteel, manufacturer of office furniture.  She has focused on the correlation between business strategies and the workplace. She has a degree in interior design and a Master’s in business administration and has worked as an interior designer and strategic planner for her own firm and Perkins + Will, and as a workplace consultant for HOK/Consulting. She leads Allsteel’s Workplace Advisory team and the development and delivery of content and tools that support clients and design organizations as they plan, design and manage work environments.

Ways We Work is a blog series.

Categories: Workplace Interiors