Why Acoustics Are Integral to Open Office Design

I want you to consider your surroundings. Are you sitting at home with a hot drink? Perhaps you are on public transport, heading to your destination? Or are you at work, surrounded by the hum of the office and unable to concentrate fully on what you would like to be doing? Chances are that many of you have experienced what it is like to work in an open office. The chatter which is inescapable, the phones ringing throughout the day and the constant moving, shuffling and nattering of colleagues. Whatever the design, there are always distractions and in close-knit environments such as these, the distractions hinder productivity.

Modern designers love the prospect of open plan. Whether in the home or in the office, pulling down the walls and creating these communal, flowing spaces is being adopted everywhere. Admittedly, open plan spaces can look fantastic, with the whitewashed walls reflecting the light flowing through. However, it is the practicality of an area such as this where problems begin to arise. Sound is hardly an issue at home where there are arguably, two, three or even four individuals. But place 20 employees or more into a fairly cramped space and then see what the noise levels are like.

Controlling Noise Levels in the Office

The central idea behind the open office is that teamwork and collaboration are crucial for helping teams to work better together and make the whole business more efficient. This theory dates back to 1950s Germany and the open design expected creativity and co-operation to skyrocket. The result has not exactly played out that way. Unsurprisingly, squeezing teams into a condensed space turns it into a cacophony of distractions both audible and visual. That means a nightmare situation for any office worker.

As a response, designers are increasingly having to find unique solutions to each space in order to create a sense of privacy while still retaining the open style of the office. A delicate balancing act indeed. While visual distractions are relatively straightforward to manage using furniture and screens to simply block them out, the same cannot be said for noise. Working at a job is rife with stress the majority of the time, so when you have to listen to colleagues loudly blurting about their dinner plans, this frustration begins to stack up.

Visual distractions are predictable, but audible distractions are anything but. You might be able to block out the office wanderer with a dividing screen, but how can you possibly block out the person sat next to you chatting away on the phone. Many offices allow staff to use headphones, but then this completely defeats the point of having an open office in the first place.

The Theory Behind Sound Waves

To begin with, we need to consider quite how sound waves work. They work in very much the same way as sea waves, with vibrations causing ripples which consequently create alternating patterns of squashed-together areas and stretched-out areas. Just like sea waves, vibrations from sound waves continues in a set direction until they run out of energy. In an open office, this quickly becomes an issue, especially in environments with solid walls and hardwood floors. This is because the sound waves are longitudinal, meaning the vibrations travel in one direction. When these hit a hard surface such as a wall, they reflect off in different directions until it runs out of energy.

This is primarily why we hear echoes in closed spaces with no soft material in sight. Imagine being stood in a cave, a gym or any other open environment such as this. Because there is nothing to take the energy out of the waves, they will continue to reverberate until they die out naturally. In the context of an open office, when there is no soft surface to soak up ambient noise, all those voices will continue to bounce around, whirring above your head and in your ears until either you or the sound runs out of energy to continue.

The Solution for Office Design

This is where acoustics become such an integral but difficult part of an office’s design. Sound waves are not visible quite like sea waves, so being able to contain and control them can take time and a lot of planning. Aside from getting a specialist engineer in (which will ramp the cost up), the trick is to implement soft surfaces into the design. Carpets, acoustic panels and acoustic screens all can contribute to containing the overall ambient office noise.

You cannot block out sound altogether, physics simply does not allow it. However, open office designs can be adapted to account for the acoustics in the room and help to reduce the reverberation rates of sound waves. In layman’s terms, this means that the voice of one individual at the back of the office will not be heard by everyone on the other side. As a result, audible distractions can be reduced, therefore helping employees to concentrate and be more productive.

An ideal situation would be to create separate work spaces with one area which encourages collaboration and interaction between colleagues and another that provides complete privacy and space for people to concentrate. While ideal in theory, a design such as this is unattainable for start-ups and small businesses who are already operating with a limited amount of space. In this situation, a compromise needs to be made to make the most of the space available.

The Negative Impact of Ambient Noise

If the acoustical quality of the office is not addressed, then it can potentially lead to serious issues affecting employees. Illness, rising stress levels, fatigue and a number of other side effects can result from noisy offices. It is important to note that while some employees may thrive in the hustle and bustle of a busy office, others will quickly feel drained and de-motivated by such an environment.

Unfortunately, there is no set response as to what makes a perfect office design. Every space is different, each business is unique and individual workers excel in a drastic variety of environments. It can be hard, but not impossible to cater for everyone. Regular distractions are a frustration for anyone and being interrupted constantly can trigger severe issues in the workforce. Without a dramatic overhaul of the layout, a simple solution is to add soft materials; office screens, carpets and anything which has a pliable make-up. These help to soak up sound waves and can at minimum help to dampen rising noise levels.