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Sound Management: Coping With a Noisy Office

Does your open-plan office have noise problems?

In a presentation delivered at Clerkenwell Design Week, Ros Lambert-Porter pointed out the three main determining factors to problematic office noise:

  • Too loud. Overwhelming noise (in call centres, for instance) means you have a hard time thinking straight and a harder time focusing on hearing your own voice.
  • Poor speech privacy. Offices with little opportunity for private conversation become distracting and difficult for some members of staff (the boss, for instance) to do business in.
  • Too quiet. If you've got a noisy office you might think there's no such thing as too quiet, but offices that are too quiet can be just as counter-productive, and the sound of somebody hitting the keyboard or tapping a pencil will thunder across the room.
There are ways with dealing with all of these, all without sacrificing the design of your open-plan office, but the first step is in identifying in which one affects your workplace.

Lambert-Porter pointed out: where smoke can go, sound can go. Laying a carpet or a installing a desk screen won't solve all your noise problems.

If you're looking to achieve acoustic harmony in your office -- Lambert-Porter argues good noise management can lead to greater sales productivity, less distractions in the workplace and less stress for staff -- there are plenty of products on the market. They include:

  • Acoustic furniture -- such as chairs and sofas, which have audio absorbing foam inserted into the back elements. These are only useful if the furniture isn't pushed up against the wall.
  • Acoustic tambour units -- are filled with holes and essentially suck the noise into the unit. These can be as effective as wall panels, and tambour units generally take up plenty of space in the open-plan office.
  • Suspended ceilings -- come in either glass fibre or mineral solutions, and can be very effective at lowering noise.
  • Partitions -- these are generally what you're trying to avoid in an open-plan office, but portioning off certain rooms (such as meeting rooms) with brick, drywall or glazing can be effective at lowering the noise going in an out. Be careful with these, though - if there's a big gap before the ceiling, it can actually make the noise inside easily audible to those outside.
  • Carpet tiles -- can generally absorb up to 15% of the ambient noise in the room. They are generally designed to lower the sound of footfall between floors, however.
  • Wall panels -- not all of these look like those big pyramid blocks you see stuck to audio studios, and they can be very effective at lowering noise.
  • Sound masking -- using pink noise, a calming sound is played across the office that cancels out other noises. The effect is like the sound of waves at the sea or the fridge in your kitchen: you'll only notice the noise if it stops.
Lambert-Porter says that using a combination of some of these products will result in better amounts of noise elimination in your office. They might be worth looking into if you've reached a point where you can't hear yourself think anymore.

Have you managed to eliminate your noise problems in your open-plan office, and how did you do it?

Pic: Skelekitten cc2.0)

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