Sounds Perfect

How to manage acoustics and boost productivity

Open plan working cuts hierarchy and creates collaborative working. Workspace usage is maximised. However, by their nature open plan offices can be noisy. Poor acoustics effect productivity and can lead to stress, lack of well being and high staff turnover.

Applying the science of acoustics raises productivity by improving staff comfort and well being.

How to create a good acoustic environment

Make areas with different aural requirements into separate zones. Place confidential zones and zones for concentration away from communal conversation and collaboration zones.

Use barriers between the zones to indicate the type of space being entered. Isolate the more sensitive areas in order to provide both visual and acoustic privacy.

Acoustic control is also necessary to improve productivity and reduce distraction in these zones.

It is often believed that lower noise levels improve the ability to concentrate. However, it is the intelligibility and clarity of speech around us that impairs concentration. If we can hear it, it’s distracting. The less intelligible the speech the easier it is to ignore.

The Distraction Distance

When someone talks in an open plan office, the person within a certain radius could be distracted. The further away the speaker is from the listener the less they are distracted. The distance at which this distraction quickly reduces and the ability to concentrate improves is the ‘distraction distance’.

To cut the number of people distracted by a single speaker this distance needs to be reduced. To control distraction from speech intelligibility the sound path taken must be considered.Installing screens between work stations disrupts the direct path of noise.

If the screen is high enough but not dense enough sound will pass through it.The screen must possess mass to block sound. Sound absorbing materials should be applied to the outside of the screens to gain the most benefit from them. As well as improving acoustics, screening also assists visual separation and privacy.

In addition to direct sound our ears pick up the sounds reflected off many other surfaces. The ceiling is the largest uninterrupted surface in an office. It influences the distance that sound travels significantly. Even with high screens a strong reflection can bounce over them off the ceiling to nearby work stations. Adding ceiling rafts or absorbent ceiling tiles can reduce sound reflection and so reduce the distance that sounds travel across an office.

While many believe that office sounds are too high – in reality they are too low. Lower ambient noise can cause distracting sounds to become more obvious. So, introducing the right kind of noise can improve our acoustic environment. Sound masking systems can create a backdrop of noise that is easily ignored. Speakers placed in the ceiling produce a pleasant sound tuned to suit the environment. In most cases people are unaware that it is in operation allowing them to continue their work easily without distractions.

By applying the A, B, C, D of acoustics in an office we significantly reduce the distraction distance

A = Absorb

Place absorbent screens between work stations and absorbent panels over areas of hard reflective surfaces such as a ceiling.

B = Block

Create barriers between speakers and listeners that are high and have enough mass to reduce direct sound paths.

C = Cover

Increase the amount of ambient noise. This should be a sound that can be easily ignored like sound masking.

D = Divide

Separate work areas according to function and sensitivity to acoustic disruption using distance and acoustic screens

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health Hazard

Noise in offices, especially open plan, is often a problem. Recent research suggests that poor workplace acoustics can affect a person’s ability to do a task – cutting productivity. With Health and Safety regulation employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe place of work. This includes protection from noise. Clearly, where there is extreme noise, protective equipment must be provided. In modern offices much of the noise is coming from people talking.

Most of us can work in spaces where there is a general hubbub. We can shut ourselves off from surrounding noise and get on with the work. It’s when there is more than a hubbub when speech becomes clearer and more intelligible that the noise distracts.

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