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How do office sounds impact design? Hint: Not all sound in the workplace is bad

March 11, 2020

By Basel Jurdy

A smart workplace design conversation means understanding the role acoustics play in the workplace

As a workplace designer/strategist and an acoustic consultant, respectively, we are interested in challenging ideas that make us think differently and make our projects better. We’ve found that the way we think about sound can profoundly influence a workplace design and the workplace experience. Oftentimes, sound isn’t the enemy. In this blog, we explore how acoustics in the office experience influences the design approach.

Can the workplace design debate be understood in terms of sound?

For those of us that work in offices, design them, or just read about them online, a never-ending debate rages on between two extremes: the open office and the private office. This debate is often presented as a black and white choice between the distracting noise of the bustling open environment and the serenity and solitude of space comprised of enclosed offices and cubicles. Neither state is an accurate or ideal office environment, nor are they realistic depictions of how offices work today. Today’s designers should be aware that the embrace of a largely open office will also require the creation of spaces for different types of activity. Let’s save those points for later and address this “debate” from another angle. Reduce this conversation about open offices to its bare essentials and one thing should become quite clear. The talk about open versus private offices is largely about sound and our relationship to it at work.

Overhead absorption and a sound masking system were part of this workplace design to provide acoustic comfort and separation from adjacent activities.

What does sound mean for workplace design?

Design is largely concerned with space and how to make it optimal for use by people. In the workplace, this means creating an environment that fosters the activity required to do the best work possible. In recent years, that’s often come to mean setting the stage with a mix of settings, encouraging innovation by breaking down silos, and creating an energetic space where ideas can be shared freely. We expect that a certain amount of sound comes with that, so these office layouts have heightened our awareness of sound at work. But sound is always a design element in the workplace and should be approached thoughtfully in every workplace project—even the traditional closed office. We need to contend with sound and how it relates to performing work. How much background noise is acceptable? How much quiet do we actually need to do concentrated work?

Sound is often positive

Sound often results from social interaction. A little sound is hip—it can be energetic. This can be as attractive as it is when we walk into a great restaurant. And today, with technology and employer policies making remote working an option, we need reasons for people to come to work and become engaged in what they do. Staff may come to work for the social interaction when they’ve tired of their remote working solitude. The buzz of the workplace can be motivational and useful—those chance encounters in the company cafe can result in innovation and collaboration. We may crave a bit of sound in the workplace and work better when we hear it without knowing it.

Understanding that individuals deal with sound in different ways throughout their day, perceived and physical sound, depending on task, mood, personality, and placement is a key aspect of workplace design with acoustics in mind. Depending on our experience, professional role, and industry we’re engaged in—even our personality—each of us will have different preferences for the volume and proximity to sound we’re comfortable with. And, in today’s culture of wireless headphones and noise cancelation there are new mechanisms we can use for changing sound.

The way we think about sound can profoundly influence a workplace design and the workplace experience.

Acceptable sound level is relative

What we’re doing and how many people we’re doing it with affect the volume we’re going to find acceptable in the workplace. Long informal meetings in a conference room might be loud and chatty. Back at our desks, we accept that we have a quieter, less intrusive environment that permits head-down work or lower volume conversation. Your neighbor’s headphones might be distraction for the simple reason that their volume is beyond your control, even if it’s just barely audible. Here, company culture and industry play a major role. A highly collaborative creative firm, for example, may take its office buzz as a point of pride. Whereas a more traditional law firm will not. While other employers favor open plans to tightly pack workers to save space regardless of industry, and sometimes this doesn’t work as well as it could because of sound.

Training and orientation can help users understand the role architecture plays

The relationship between a space’s architecture and its function is a key element of the design process. But is it well understood by the actual users? Architecture has its limitations in supporting or reducing sounds in the workplace. Increasing awareness through training can increase the comradery amongst the users, resulting in an overall reduction of the sounds that users generate in the workspace. Employers often train and orient their staff on how to use systems or where to find the copy machine and the water cooler. Unfortunately, it is not typical for employers to train staff on what the office space is designed to achieve or how one person’s activity can impact another’s. If this type of training is designed to be promoted at team level and not as a mandate, an increase in comradery and reduction in overall sound will follow.

Expectations ultimately shape the goals and design details for a project. What is the right balance for managing sound that balances productivity and preferences? How much perceived privacy is required in a shared workplace? Understanding the range of expectations is key to design details.

Expectations are key

If we expect to flourish in a buzzing hive of activity, we’ll be happier in a semi-open office, or in a living lab of collaboration. If our expectations are for near total silence, we’ll probably be disappointed to find that most worthwhile human activity generates some amount of sound—clicking keyboards and shoes in a hallway will never go away. And, what makes one worker happy may not work for another one.

But expectations ultimately shape the goals and design details for a project. What is the right balance for managing sound that balances productivity and preferences? How much perceived privacy is required in a shared workplace that has to accommodate different methods and activities? Understanding the range of expectations can help us to answer these questions.

  • Basel Jurdy

    With more than 27 years of experience, Basel is a dynamic project leader and a natural mentor.

    Contact Basel
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