June 2024 Newsletter: Easy as A-B-C

Deep in the throes of the pandemic in late 2020, the idea of returning to the physical office was a distant dream. By 2022, most of us had returned to the office on a limited basis, but still spent more time working remotely. Now in 2024, the post-pandemic work model seems to lean towards an office-heavy hybrid – a shift motivated by the promise of collaboration, spontaneous interactions, clearer communication, and team cohesion. Companies are now looking for ways to optimize the use of their facilities with greater emphasis on flexibility and interpersonal communication and a deemphasis on space-hogging private offices and one-employee-one-desk models. However, the shift from the solitude of home offices to the humming open office environment can present significant acoustic challenges. Read on to learn more about open office speech privacy.

In open offices, maintaining speech privacy is a critical concern. The cost of the interpersonal interaction that these spaces offer are distraction, disruption, and workflow efficiency for those used to the relative quiet of their home office. To combat these issues, acousticians lean on the ABCs of open office acoustics to develop practical solutions.

  (Photo courtesy of Armstrong World Industries)

‘A’ is for absorption, a technique that integrates acoustically absorptive materials throughout the office space. These materials, ranging from the ubiquitous fabric-wrapped panels and acoustic ceiling tile to custom-printed stretched fabric, acoustical plaster systems, and felt freeform shapes, are applied to available surfaces to reduce unwanted reflections that propagate sound to nearby occupants, and diminish sound buildup that can make a space overly loud. Most often these materials are applied to walls and ceilings, with thin carpet providing some absorption at the floor. By reducing the amount of reflected sound that might otherwise tend to build up within a space and bounce to other occupants, we then need to address direct sound to further reduce distraction.

‘B’ represents blocking, which involves strategically positioning furniture such as workstation screens, high-backed furniture, or floor-standing screens. These physical barriers obstruct the direct path of sound between work areas, and subsequently reduce distractions. Often located between adjacent workstations or between a group of desks and a nearby collaboration area, partial-height barriers can also be a convenient way to incorporate additional local absorption as a one-two punch in favor of speech privacy.

Finally, ‘C’ denotes covering, where sound masking systems are deployed to elevate background sound levels. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, aren’t we supposed to be pursuing lower sound levels? The answer to that question is no, we are trying to improve speech privacy, not make everything as quiet as can be. By subtly increasing background sound levels and employing a carefully tuned spectrum intended to obfuscate speech sounds, nearby conversations are masked and become unintelligible. With unintelligibility comes reduced distraction, allowing the worker at their desk to focus on the task at hand while their colleagues discuss a team project.

As workers return to the office, ensuring a productive environment is paramount. By implementing the ABCs of open office acoustics, workplaces can foster an atmosphere conducive to focused work and meaningful collaboration. Whether it’s absorption, blocking, or covering, integrating these techniques can dramatically improve speech privacy and improve the in-office experience for your team.

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