Working in an open-plan office has many benefits, not least around easier communications and co-operative working. Yet for many, a distinct disadvantage concerns acoustics and the inability to filter out all the surrounding noise and auditory distractions caused by everyone and everything around you.
Too many large, smooth surfaces in an open-plan office can cause sound to bounce back at the exact same angle that it hits them, resulting in annoying reverberations and echoes that can drive people crazy within a very short space of time. Counter measures that are designed to deflect, redirect and absorb sounds can go a long way towards improving matters, however, there are also many ways to stop problems with the acoustics getting in the way of productivity in an open plan office.
In the planning stages of an open-plan office design, make sure to do plenty of research into the various job functions and what they need form the new layout, including which ones may generate more noise, or need more privacy than others in their regular work. A good open-plan design should include adequate numbers of smaller, screened off areas to house noisier functions, such as printers and photocopiers, break-out meeting rooms, staff relaxation areas, kitchens and reception desks. Even installing temporary walls, movable barriers or folding screens can help prevent noise from inadvertently travelling to the quieter areas of the office.
Ministry of sound
Installing sound absorption and masking systems is also a great way to reduce noise levels. Floors and ceilings are prime locations to fit sound absorbers and specially adapted panels and sound-proofing layers. Installing thicker carpets, good quality lino or cork flooring can also help cut down the noise of footsteps and high heel clicks as people move about the office. There are also a number of sound masking systems available, which emit low-level, unobtrusive background sounds that keep overall noise levels consistent and do a good job of blocking out travelling voices and other auditory distractions.
Ensuring every worker has their own space in which to work, whether that is a permanently allocated station or a hot-desking arrangement will help keep sound levels down and ensure greater privacy for important phone calls, meetings etc. Adding partitions between work stations that are at least 52 inches high will help muffle conversations further and interrupt sound waves. Providing separate rooms for confidential phone conversations and meetings will also be appreciated by people needing an even higher level of confidentiality during a more sensitive project or task.
Distracting noises can come from unexpected sources too, so check things like the lighting for irritating humming or plumbing for intermittent gurgles and bangs. Switch off equipment such as air conditioning units and fans and get rid of any clocks with an especially loud tick. Some noises will inevitably come in from outside or from neighbouring offices. In these cases, while you have less control over reducing the volume, you can talk to those involved to see if you can work out a workable compromise between you to encourage them to reduce their noise without hindering their productivity.