The Cost of Poor Workspace Acoustics

Chris Grenville
13th January 2017

Relationships Matter

The modern office has evolved considerably over the last 40 years. The move from individual offices to collaborative workspaces has a number of advantages. However, studies show the importance of combining open offices with workplace designs that provide good acoustics. Unfortunately, acoustics are often overlooked with setting up work spaces. This can result in reductions in worker performance and productivity.

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Office Space Planning
Office Workstations
Workplace Design

Sounds…Like That Could Be a Problem

Over the last few decades many improvements have been made in acoustic design and workplaces. This includes new materials that are better at absorbing sound and a white noise machines to help provide a better overall atmosphere.

In spite of the improvements in technology, a study found 13% increase in people reporting not having access to a quiet place to work. Meanwhile, there was a 16% increase in the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desks.

The Science of Silence

Workplace acoustics are more complicated than most people would guess. In addition, hundreds of years of acoustical studies have largely focused on ways to design auditoriums and concert halls to make it easier to clearly hear sounds across a distance. Until the industrial revolution led to large numbers of people living in cities there was little need to study neighbourhood noise. In the course of human history, workplace noise and concerns about productivity are fairly recent concerns.

Since the 1960s, business offices have replaced offices with open workstations and cubicles. These type of workplace configurations are more versatile, provide better teamworking, and are economical. Cubicles do, however, face specific challenges with regards to acoustics.

Often companies think adding large amounts of acoustical tile and other soundproofing is the solution. Sound is a more complicated issue than that. Just as too much noise can be bad, so can too little. Overly quiet office spaces feel oppressive and make it awkward for employees to try to discuss a project or make phone calls. It is important to find the right balance between noise and quiet in order to provide the optimal work environment.

Workplace design hasn’t been the only significant change to impact workplace acoustics. Changing business technologies continue to be a source of new challenges in office design.

Evolving Office Technologies

Workplace design hasn’t been the only significant change to impact workplace acoustics. Changing business technologies continue to be a source of new challenges in office design. Through the 1970s typewriters and adding machine were vital parts of most offices. These noisy office components were typically found in the secretarial pool located not in office but in a central collection of desks. The sounds of manual typewriter keys and carriage returns, were replaced by electric typewriters with slightly quieter key strikes accompanied by the hum of machinery and the cha-ching of electric adding machines.

As computers began taking over the workplace in the 1980s, there was a gradual change to quieter ones – but this gap in the noise was often filled by the screech and thud of dot matrix printers. Fax machines rang and soon the squeal of dial up modems cut through the workplace.

Today’s computers and printers operate fairly quietly but that can leave a sound void in the office place. Rather than conversations being muted by a background of office technology noise, even a quiet discussion can be jarring for neighbouring co-workers. Meanwhile, ringing office phones, mobile phones, and the ding of message notifications add their own periodic interruptions. In an overly quiet office, even the sound of a chair rolling across the floor can become disruptive.

Balancing the Sounds and the Silence

The numerous variables involved in workspaces and their acoustics make a one-size-fits-all type solution impossible. The number of employees and type of work must all be considered. The size and shape of the workspace is important as are the types of materials. Offices with large amounts of glass, metal, or hard surface flooring will have very different acoustics than a carpeted space in a wooden structure. The surrounding area must also be considered. The sounds made in neighbouring offices, the sounds of the elevators in the lobby, the number of visitors to the office, and the noise from the street outside, must all be considered.

The good news is plenty of technologies and acoustic technologies are available. When properly used with appropriate furnishings and workplace configurations, they can make any office functional. Then, as the business demands and office technologies change, the office space planning and acoustic strategies can be updated to better meet evolving requirements. Fortunately, many of today’s office workstations are designed to be adapted to changes in business needs.