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August 2012: Speech Privacy in Open Office Designs

Are you eavesdropping on your coworkers? Are sounds from the office copier driving you nuts? Open office spaces are taking over the corporate landscape with their enticing benefits: a more collaborative working environment, flexible layouts, and lower construction costs.  But what are the acoustic implications of removing walls from the work place? Read on to learn more about planning your next open office work space.

Photo by Charles Matsinger Associates

Privacy is often the biggest compromise in open plan offices. Achieving the right balance between privacy and collaboration involves careful design of office furniture, room finishes, the HVAC system, and sound masking. Including small, quiet rooms can provide privacy for sensitive conversations. Some of our clients have found incorporating both open spaces with individual work and meeting rooms helps to balance the scale between collaborative efforts and noise. These dedicated quiet spaces and conference rooms should have full-height walls designed for acoustic isolation.

Privacy isn’t the only problem. Without walls, workers are subjected to more office noise. Loud conversations across the office, phones ringing, copy machines humming, fax machines dialing, and even the click-clack of enthusiastic typing can be a distraction. In collaborative environments, ideally the noise floor is high enough to make intermittent sounds less intrusive, but not so high that conversations are impeded.

Photo by Charles Matsinger Associates

When selecting office furniture, systems with higher partitions are better acoustic barriers: the dividing panels need to block the line of sight between workstations for any acoustic attenuation to be realized. This requires a 48″ or higher partition. If visual transparency is needed for lighting or other aesthetic considerations, glass panels can be used on the upper portions of the dividers.  Adding acoustic absorption to the partitions can enhance acoustic performance by reducing sound reflections. It is also beneficial to have absorptive floor and ceiling finishes. This can make distant conversations a little more difficult to understand while reducing reverberant sound build-up, which can be detrimental to overall acoustic comfort.

Photo by Charles Matsinger Associates

We are often asked if HVAC noise can be used as sound masking.  The sound from such systems tends to vary throughout a space and often changes based on the heating and cooling demands of the office. Variations in the sound level make the HVAC noise more noticeable to workers than a well-designed masking system. In addition, the frequency content of HVAC noise is often not in the range where speech occurs. As a result, HVAC noise is not the best solution for sound masking. Dedicated masking systems have a neutral sound and the volume is consistent throughout the entire office. These systems can be designed to include scheduling capabilities – ramping up or down based on the time of day. The result is unobtrusive sound masking that meets the workspace needs.

Before deploying an open office plan, it is important to weigh the pros and cons. It is not the right solution for every business, but it can be a success with some advanced acoustical planning.

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