Office acoustics: The essential guide

Offices have evolved into open plan hubs of creativity. In its development, office acoustics have been overlooked. Take a look at some of the ways in which poor acoustics in the office can affect employee wellbeing, and what can be done to improve your office’s acoustics. 

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Offices are constantly evolving. In the1930s, offices were designed for functionality with very little to ignite the senses or spark creativity. Space, privacy, and personal comfort were of little importance, resembling a factory; the staple of working life during the industrial revolution.

Over the years, desks increased in size to accommodate electrical equipment and cubicles were introduced to maximise productivity and increase privacy. 

Fast-forward to today and our offices have undergone a dramatic transformation from their primitive beginnings. Open-plan offices seem to be the favoured design choice, promoting collaborative work, creativity, and innovation.

The modern office is a hive of activity
Offices have transformed in recent years to be creative, collaborative hubs

As a result, companies are cultivating cutting-edge office spaces that are designed to represent the companies’ image and bring people together, with design and layer concepts such as:

  •  Open spaces
  •  Hot desking
  •  Communal work areas
  • Modern furniture
  •  Vivid colours
  • Podcast Studios

Why acoustics matter 

Despite the intention to ignite creativity and improve employee wellbeing, acoustics appear to have been overlooked within the design process of most modern offices. Unwanted sound, or ‘noise’ as it is commonly referred, is a common complaint in offices today. In fact, many studies indicate that noise is the most frequent complaint amongst office workers. 

A noisy office environment is causing stress for this female employee
Workers want a workplace free from noisy distractions more than anything else and often office acoustics are overlooked at the development stage

A 2016 study by economic consultants at Oxford Economics found that employees wanted a workspace free from distractions, above anything else. Despite this, the study found that office acoustics were last on designers’ considerations when developing offices.

What constitutes noise in offices?

Distractions rear their ugly head in many different forms. One thing that they have in common is that most distractions involve an element of noise. 

The ‘collaborative work’ taking place nearby, the sound of the telephone constantly ringing, General chit-chat from your colleagues, and noisy machinery are all common disturbances affecting our ability to work. 

But, where do acoustics come into this?

Most open-plan offices carry similar characteristics: They have highly reverberant surfaces such as hard floors, ceilings, and desks, and they are environments occupied by lots of people. 

The result?

The distractions become amplified.

The science of sound

Let’s explore how those sounds amplify. 

When a sound is created, it propagates from the source in all directions, radiating outwards until it encounters a boundary element. 

Three different points intersect when sound reacts with its environment that all contribute to what we hear:

1. Direct sound

This implies that the sound, such as a colleague speaking directly to you, has not reacted with its environment, such as a wall or ceiling before it reaches your ears (which is what we want). 

Sound waves from someone speaking
When someone speaks to you directly the sound should be clear, however, unwanted reflected sound and revurbaration can cause speech to become unintelligible

2. Reflected sound

We hear reflected sound when the noise interacts with a surface that sends the sound bouncing back. This reflected sound can be incredibly obstructive when combined with the direct sound we mentioned as it causes the brain to work harder in decoding the two similar sounds to localise its source (which is how humans can tell which direction a sound is coming from). This mental conflict contributes to fatigue and a loss of concentration.

3. Reverberation

This is how long it takes for sound energy to dissipate in a space until it is inaudible. Your brain can cope with singular sources of reverberation as it helps us know how big a space is, but when your brain tries to unravel multiple reverberated signals all at once, it can struggle to create a clear sonic image of the environment, again causing tiredness and in some cases claustrophobic responses.  

Human ear anatomy with sound wave
When your brain tries to unravel multiple reverberated sounds all at once it causes fatigue.  

When a sound wave encounters a surface, it is either absorbed or reflected. An example of an absorbent material is carpet. 

Desks, windows and hard floors all pose opportunities for sounds to reflect. This reflected sound wave will continue to travel until it reflects off another surface.

The uncomfortable noise you hear in a room is an accumulation of all the sound waves being reflected off numerous surfaces.

Sadly, offices are a haven of hard, shiny surfaces.  

Click here to get your free Office Acoustics Guide

How do acoustics affect creativity?

We’ve briefly touched upon how acoustics affect productivity, but with creativity being such a key contributor to success nowadays, let’s look at how bad acoustics can inhibit creativity. 

Mehta, Zhu and Cheema (2012) published a paper studying the effect of noise on creative task performance. 

Their methods were as follows:

  • Subjects performed various exercises designed to measure ideational fluency and open-mindedness while a soundtrack played in the background.
  • The track either played a low (50 decibels), middle (70 decibels), or high volume (85 decibels).
  • A fourth group performed the same exercises without any accompanying soundtrack to establish a baseline from which to measure the collected results. 

Surprisingly, the fourth group did not perform top scores. It was, in fact, the participants who were exposed to midlevel noise (70 decibels).

To put 70 decibels into context, it is roughly equivalent to the bustling sound of a coffee shop or restaurant. 

It also approximates the loudness of a running shower, which could explain why some of our best ideas come to us whilst we’re showering.

What can we learn from noise experiments?

Research suggests that creativity is dependent on the right level of noise, with 70 decibels being the ‘sweet spot’ when acquiring those creative ideas. 

Now we know why coffee shops are a popular place for creatives to get their work done. Or is it just the caffeine?

Now we’re armed with this data: we have an idea of the ‘right level’ of noise that produces the most creative ideas.

But how do we keep that noise at 70 decibels?

Larger offices mean louder environments, and we know that keeping volume at a consistent level in line with creativity is a challenge, to say the least. 

And it’s not just a case of telling people to be quiet. 

Over exuberant office worker playing the air guitar
Office acoustics can help maintain a consistent and acceptable noise level… but sometimes telling a colleague to be quiet could be the correct option

What is the solution?

There are many solutions to improving the acoustics of your office, and ultimately, unlocking your creative potential. 

We always advise people to explore cost-effective options first. Those simple tweaks may be the ideal solution in dealing with bad acoustics. 

Top ten cost-effective ways to improve your office acoustics and control noise

1. Careful arrangement of teams. 

Hot-desking may well be en vogue for the fluid, modern office, but different departments work in different ways. For example, the marketing team benefits from regular collaboration and communication, whereas the accounts team will need to have a more focused approach to their work. 
Through careful consideration, you’ll be able to arrange departments based on the nature of their daily activities. 

Office staff collaborating in an open-plan office
By giving consideration to where your staff are positioned within an office, you can minimise many unnecessary disruptions and give employees freedom to collaborate and communicate without disturbing others

2. Dedicated meeting rooms/quiet areas. 

Offices need to consider the times when it is necessary and appropriate to hold quiet meetings in a private setting, despite the proven benefits of open-plan offices. 

We recommend that you consider a room divider. These can be cheaply made from plywood and clad in an acoustically absorbent material, such as our pyramid profile acoustic foam or our recycled CorkBee panels. These effective little barriers are lightweight and modular so they can be moved around to suit a dynamic work environment. 

3. Separate spaces for lunch breaks. 

With those all-too-frequent time consuming tasks, it may be necessary to eat lunch and take breaks at your desk.

Whilst we advocate frequent breaks and rest periods, doing so at one’s desk could lead to unwelcome noise and distraction. This could greatly affect productivity amongst your team. 

To combat this, we recommend you encourage staff to take breaks away from their desks. 

4. Plants.

Plants do a great job at absorbing sound, whilst creating an aesthetic appeal. Consider introducing some greenery into your office to help with bad office acoustics. Our Preserved Moss Wall is a great choice for treating poor office acoustics, whilst bringing the outdoors in.

Preserved Moss Wall office acoustics
Preserved Moss Walls bring a touch of nature to your office acoustics.

5. Separate rooms for noisy machinery. 

Machine and server rooms are an integral part of most modern businesses. These devices are large and typically emit noise that will simply travel straight through the stud walls found in your typical office. 

To stop the sound from transmitting into the workspace, line the storage rooms with Sound-Zero Class ‘0’ insulation. This insulation has been developed with industry in mind, acoustic treatment that has been fire rated to the highest standard to keep expensive and vital machinery safe and sound. 

6. Lining underneath the desks. 

Desks account for around 40% of the flat surfaces in an office and we can use this space to our advantage, by acoustically treating the un-used space on the underside of them. 

Most of the staff won’t even notice the addition of acoustic foam right under their noses, so it won’t detract from office design. Ridged or pyramid foam is perfect for this application. It’s easy to cut and place in awkward spaces and has an excellent noise reduction rating. 

7. Playing ambient noise.

Research suggests that noise itself isn’t distracting. Unwanted noise is what’s causing the distracted and unproductive environment that may be affecting your workforce. 

By playing low-level, ambient sound, it can mask the unwanted noise, making conversations for listeners that aren’t intended to hear them unintelligible, and therefore much easier to ignore.

8. Office Layout. 

By positioning desks in clusters throughout the office, you can compartmentalise the noise, by keeping the essential conversation in close proximity. 

9. Make partitions an office feature. 

Wall partitions don’t just have to be used as a way of separating areas or concealing noisy equipment. 

Wall partition with acoustic rings
Partitions can be a stylish addition to an office whilst helping with the acoustics

A stylish and contemporary wall partition makes for an incredibly appealing feature wall. Choose a partition wall that offers some form of acoustic absorption whilst offering an element of simple style and tasteful minimalism. Sound Zero specialises in designing bespoke acoustic walls tailored to your companies’ brand.  

10. Sound-absorbing materials. 

As previously discussed, hard surfaces aren’t great at absorbing sound. Where possible, opt for softer floor solutions (such as carpets) to help control unwanted noise. 

Additionally, strategically place acoustic panels help to deaden unwanted sound. An experienced acoustician will provide you with a detailed summary and make suggestions on where to place sound-absorbent materials that will to optimise their imapct. 

Discreet acoustic solutions for offices

When considering ‘discreet’ solutions, we’re often led to assume that things need to be hidden away from view. 

Discreet acoustic solutions can also create a strong visual impact, ‘tricking’ people into thinking that an acoustic solution is just part of the office design. This is certainly the case with our CorkBee range. Made from recycled wine bottle corks, the Cork panels are 100% sustainably sourced. With its porous nature, cork is a natural sound absorber that is moulded into two distinct three-dimensional shapes. These work as an additional sound diffuser, creating a dramatic and unique feature wall for your office environment.  

CorkBee sound absorbing feature wall
Recycled wine bottles are used to make our CorkBee range which not only makes a great sound absorber and diffuser, it also creates a stunning feature wall

Our Profiled Foam serves the same purpose as our CorkBee range, improving the design of your office. With our unique coating system, the profiled foam can be painted in a wide variety of colours to match your brand design. 

Egg Profile foam can absorb a wide range of frequencies and sound waves.
With the unique coating systems offered by Sound Zero, creating acoustic solutions in brand colours can give your office acoustics an identity in keeping with your company ethos

Discretion is not just about hiding unattractive acoustic panels. At Sound Zero, we create acoustic solutions that are developed to improve the design of your office.

Where should acoustic treatment be placed in offices?

A key consideration to bear in mind when upgrading your office is the visual impact that acoustic treatment may have on your working environment and whether acoustic treatment would actually be effective. 

Let’s face it, you’ll be parting with your hard-earned money. You’ll want to know whether those soundproofing acoustic solutions will be an investment or not. 

The effectiveness of your acoustically treated office will depend greatly on the placement of the soundproofing resources.

Contact Sound Zero now for advice with your office acoustics

Acoustic placement 

There’s never a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to soundproofing and we recognise that every office space is unique. However, we aim to apply the same methodology to our projects; rooted in scientific reasoning. 

Firstly, we begin by identifying the reflection points in the room. Reflection points are where sound ‘bounces’. Typically, reflection points are walls or surfaces that run perpendicular or parallel to sound sources. 

We often refer to these areas as ‘First Point of Reflection’ (FPR) areas. We can do random incidence tests, along with phase tests to help locate the reflection points. More often than not, however, an experienced ear can locate and treat them sufficiently. 

Have you considered your office’s acoustics?

People learn in different ways; people interpret information in different ways; people work in different ways. One thing that binds together our uniqueness is the benefit of acoustic comfort. If you address your workplace acoustics, you’re investing in the wellbeing and productivity of your employees. 

A productive workforce is directly aligned with business growth.

Get in touch today to learn about how you can improve your office acoustics and drive success. 

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