The Adverse Effects of Noise in an Office Environment
Workspaces are year on year working to provide an overall positive atmosphere for their employees, and much has improved from the 1980s cubicle desk environment where the single image of a watering can pot sitting mounted on a wall, dwarfed by its beige surroundings in the middle distance over a sea of grey cubicle desk dividers towering over. Your manager also shielded away from everybody else in the isolated plasterboard cabin with only a name tag on their door to remind yourself that they exist.
Modern, open plan offices are now created with specialist interior design teams to consider not just architectural layout, but to discuss how workforces perform under certain environments. The aim is to create a positive work atmosphere by taking on the relevant research that surrounds workplace productivity and satisfaction to encourage better performance - after all, we all spend a significant portion of our week at work. What the open-plan designs intend in their creation is a free-flowing space that has an ease of access from team to individual - including managerial staff to breed a culture of collaboration and openness. It is these very spaces that are created with the new aesthetic designs that feature hard surfaces with high ceilings to create the large environment; there is also the installation of glass partitions which keep the free-flowing view and open space.
Companies such as WeWork, HubbleHQ and Spaces are increasing the presence of freelance environments globally, from Manchester to London, New York to Mexico City offering ‘'hot' desk spaces for individuals, dedicated desks, and the provision of micro-offices for small to large teams. These all aim to create collaborative atmospheres that encourage a diverse range of talents to escape working from home in isolation or being surrounded by the same team members in centralised business developments by helping them step up to new surroundings that all come from different fields of work. Members expose themselves to new people for the discussion of ideas and projects on a rotational basis, and often land potential jobs for one another - it could be that your project is in need of a Graphic Designer and the desired result is that there are perhaps several around in your very work environment working on individual projects - problem solved!
The workplace concerning both co-working and centralised is also changing to provide their members or work team with additional in-house services such as hospitality benefits of internal bar plots and dining, fitness and wellness programs from gyms to yoga retreats, and cultural activities with speakers and guests. By including these services, they are looking to increase the wellbeing by way of cutting down commute times between certain lifestyle events that we demand to maintain our happiness in life, as long as these activities apply to everyone as they will occasionally not be for all.
Each of these activities, as examples, comes with their acoustic challenges and during any acoustic design, we want to make sure that the actual workspace sections are not disrupted by any excessive noise issues which are often a result of the open plan design. This lack of design then defeats the purpose of a good workplace environment - if you can’t get your work done - is it the right choice and can the noise be curtailed?
We have put this Guide together to highlight some of the negative impacts, positive gains from effective soundproofing and what is possible with infusing art and sound control as one so that these can be factored into the internal design process to provide most effective soundproofing across sound sensitive areas. Moreover, to look at retrospective installations for offices that have unfortunately not included soundproofing or feel that some areas are not enough in the light of employee complaints. Perhaps you want to create acoustic modules to conduct private calls or one to ones, or to show treat reverberation issues in large span open spaces which can be alleviated by installations of highly intricate, fitting, bold art and sound absorption - there are plenty of options and solutions.
In this blog entry, we will look at
- The general background of office design and how we arrived at common acoustic themes found through today’s workplaces, co-working and all-encompassing environments now with the inclusion of private bars, free-flowing coffee and beer areas and everything that comes along with this environment.
- A focus on researched statistics and insights with up to date research to give you some idea of what impact it will or is having on your workplace and its team.
- Reverberation and how it affects speech intelligibility against adverse ambient soundscapes.
- The creative, art-focused and effective sound absorption options that are now available to treat excessive reverb.
- Sound transmission and its effect on acoustic privacy and the environment it creates concerning airborne and impact noise between spaces.
- What soundproofing options are available
Remember, if you are looking to design a workplace environment, no matter how large or small - iKoustic can work alongside your architect or interior designer to discuss all the best options with current plans - you can contact us today on 01937 588 226, or say Hello in the chat feature on the bottom right!
- Background on Office Design
- Acoustic Privacy and its Importance
- A.B.C’s, Absorption, Blocking and Covering
- What effects can noise bring to the work environment?
- What are Reverberation and its effects?
- What is Speech Intelligibility?
- What is the Speech Transmission Index?
- What are Sound Transmission and its effects?
- Sound Absorption from Note™
- Soundproofing from MuteRange™
Background of Office Floor Layout
The rise of the office focused work started from the downturn of manufacturing and industrial services, this lead to research into our workflow, productivity and how we interact with each other which has become increasingly important and has found impactful results both positive and negative, not just for acoustics but for the wellness and happiness of it’s workforce and how multiple aspects of workforce satisfaction can be influenced by various internal design styles and layouts - a brief timeline of office design has been put together below.
The late 1800s - early 1900s: US engineer Frederick Taylor, a leader of the Efficiency Movement that sought to eliminate economic waste, designed new open-plan offices.
The 1950s: Bürolandschaft, a type of office-planning (literally “office-landscape”) evolved in Germany. According to website Open Work Space Design, the concept “used organic groupings of desks in patterns designed to encourage conversation and create a happier workforce”.
1970s-1980s: companies moved to “cube”-style arrangements, which provided more privacy but which businesses used to cram as many workers into confined spaces as possible, this antagonised staff and their social wellbeing and didn’t foster cooperation as intended.
2000-today: offices then moved to multipurpose spaces, comfy seating areas, and games rooms. Though associated with Silicon Valley’s tech scene, the idea can be found across businesses globally. 
Starting from the 1950's we have our first experiences of where architects and designers are attempting to create a more collaborative environment by introducing the open workspace design for the encouragement of further communication - this was to be achieved by creating an open office arrangement in desks that feature both immediate teams or a whole host of groups.
"Open-plan offices or workspaces with dedicated collaborative spaces help to foster a more open and communicative atmosphere, encouraging team members to discuss important issues, brainstorm and complete projects together." 
There is then a complete shift away from the use of the open environment to the installation cubicle arrangements to where each team member was placed in their individual bubbles, shielded off with high partitions - which although maintains a level of acoustic privacy, but also creates isolation from other team members which creates a negative atmosphere.
From the early 2000s, there is a revert back to more inclusive spaces which we see today, the likes of Google, Facebook and other tech giants have created these open environments, although certainly not limited to them, just a few examples. However, these practices often neglect the acoustic environment and how it affects multiple areas of our productivity and effectiveness in the workplace. There are many open-plan spaces now wishing to implement this collaborative environment but not factoring in any sound absorptive materials or preventive measures such as quiet rooms or quiet areas for those looking for a less intrusive workspace.
A.B.C - Absorption, Blocking and Cover
A.B.C is the acronym that highlights the three approaches to sound control in office environments that help to achieve an acceptable level of speech privacy and increased communication with little to no disruption.
- “A” is Absorption or sound absorption to which requires materials with a high Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC), which is the absorptive qualities of a material - for example, an acoustic panel may be in the region of 0.95 NRC - 95% of the sound that is absorbed across a range of frequencies. A dense material such as plasterboard may only be 0.05 NRC - only 5% of the sound is absorbed, and the rest would be reflected into the room - creating an acoustically poor environment for a workplace, with any sounds conducting suffering from potentially long decays.
You will want to take a look at our Reverberation section below for a more in-depth view.
- “B” is Blocking; this is using high-density materials such as soundproofing to ‘block’ the noise travelling from room to room. Depending on which partition, wall floor or ceiling, and the type of noise issue - different acoustic materials and systems would be required to achieve their successful reduction
You will want to take a look at our Sound Transmission section below for a more in-depth view.
- “C” is Cover, this uses an electronic system that produces a continuous background level which is controlled via a single unit. They would often be put above suspended ceiling systems as a direct field at approximately 48dB to act as a mask to potential audio disturbances.
What effects can adverse noise bring to the work environment?
“76% of offices list noise an as important workplace consideration.”
“Productivity dips by up to 60% if you can hear someone talking while you’re reading or writing”
“50% of people work in open office environments think that noise interferes with their ability to get work done.”
“Only 30% are satisfied with the noise levels in their workplace.”
“An open office is 15% less productive as employees find it to concentrate."
Brief Description on Reverberation
Reverberation is an internal acoustic issue that exists in a single space and is exacerbated by a presence of highly reflective surfaces: glass partitions, exposed concrete or other hard floor finishings and lots of external glass work. The rooms geometry and size also plays a significant role to its final soundscape - for example, if the space is grand in size with lots of nooks, alcoves and a pitched roof - the sound will reflect across these different paths, giving energy to the direct sound and leading to longer decays.
When a sound is conducted, let us say it’s the birthday of a colleague and there is a collection of balloons scattered throughout - somebody stands on one and the sound will ring out after - perhaps for seconds spreading across the room and reflecting off the hard surfaces, the original sound of a balloon popping is saturated by the reflected sound. Now, you are talking in this environment, and when you are engaged in conversation with several others where others are also involved in other conversation you raise your voice to match the other groups as they grow there's - this is officially called the Lombard Effect or commonly referred to as the Café Effect. This environment is an incredibly tricky acoustic environment to achieve acceptable levels of speech intelligibility.
Speech intelligibility is the technical term for the clarity of speech in a particular space, clear communication of speech is critical as important information or messages may be misunderstood or misinterpreted which is detrimental in the workplace for the support of good productivity. Reverberation found even just slightly above desired targets can affect adequate levels of speech intelligibility, and excessive reverberation can be incredibly harmful to those needing to raise their voices on frequent occasions to be heard above the disadvantageous ambience it creates.
Speech Intelligibility is measured with the Speech Transmission Index which has a specific grading for how well a space performs acoustically for understanding speech.
Speech Transmission Index
Speech Transmission Index is a globally accepted measurement used for the intelligibility of speech which can be applied to a range of different spaces - you can find a guide here on it’s grading. Its measurement considers time modulation frequencies and frequency octave bands all measured from an impulse response.
You would require an Acoustic Test and reporting to create these sound measurements so that they are as accurate as possible, especially if you want to develop critical listening environments or a highly effective learning space (seminar or conference rooms would benefit from this).
Targets found in the Speech Transmission Index
Builders Bulletin 93 (BB93) are a set of Guidelines for the construction or renovation of specific spaces in educational institutions; it comes complete with recommended acoustic targets across a range of environments that include sports halls, lecture halls, classrooms and even recording studios. Many also draw on the acoustic values featured in BB93 beyond the education sector as a good set of guidelines to aspire to obtain proper levels of speech intelligibility in the workplace.
|Instruction or critical listening activity – within a group||Between groups (during essential activities of listening)|
|≥ 0.6||≤ 0.3|
Brief Description on Sound Transmission
Sound Transmission is the propagation of sound waves travelling through wall, ceiling and flooring partitions room to room. One classic example to where we receive most complaints is between conference or meeting rooms and adjacent sizeable open plan spaces with teams working on small quiet tasks or holding telecommunications on a grand scale presenting two issues - one with concerns of private information being heard in the general office space on quieter tasks, and the second is the increased vocal levels from the office space disrupting those in the conference room.
Modern interior design features spaces that are often constructed of very lightweight building materials such as standard plasterboard mounted on to a metal framework with little insulation fitted into the stud wall cavity. There is also the installation of glass partitions, and both of these allow a large percentage of the sound through with the glass partitioning making it impossible to apply soundproofing systems directly. There is also the use of lightweight suspended ceiling grids that leave a sizable cavity above the grid allowing sound to flow freely from space to space. The purpose of these suspended grids is to create room for servicing such as air conditioning units, so we would often look into less heavyweight options to apply directly to alleviate this as best we can, or use our MuteClip® as a suspended ceiling option.
Acoustic privacy is an issue found in many cases, and when we conduct site visits, it is almost always the open plan spaces and call centres that suffer most, and where noise issues reach beyond 55-60dB (A) to where 50dB (A) is most desirable. With a lack of specification in the acoustic design, this can often have detrimental effects on an individual or teams performance by way of distraction or with lacking confidence that their voice or opinions will be overheard to a wider audience unintentionally.
Improvements made with effective soundproofing can yield very positive results to the wellness and work-flow of your team, below are some figures gained from when acoustic targets are set and met.
- 1. Focus: the ability of office workers to focus on their tasks improved by 48%;
- 2. Distractions: "conversational distractions" decreased by 51%;
- 3. Error-rates: performance of standard "information-worker" tasks (measured in terms of accuracy [error-rates] and short-term memory) improved by 10%;
- 4. Stress: when measured in terms of the actual physical symptoms of stress, stress was reduced by 27%.
Sound Absorption Solution from Note™
Inadequate levels of speech intelligibility and acoustically poor internal environments that create a cavernous and acoustically uncomforting environment is where we aim to install sound absorption materials, this where we design and install effective, practical and design-led practices of sound absorption. Long gone are the days of simple beige panelling or chucking in thick upholstery chairs with carpets leaden on the walls.
Our Note™ offers incredible flexibility and customisation in almost unlimited ways - they can be made to create everything from small internal phone booths to hold private calls in busy areas to sculptures that lingers in the memories of all those that congregate around it for those choosing to stand out against the usual conventions of classic office sound absorption.
Our Sound Absorption materials are all pressed from recycled polyester in various densities and thicknesses to where each presents their Noise Reduction Coefficient value differently, but one thing they all have in common is that they are soft and fibrous this is so they can absorb excessive sound energy, the denser they become, the less effective they are, so plasterboard, for example, would not be effective at reducing reverberation. Options include our range of hanging baffles to expose maximum surface area by not adhering directly to walls or ceilings, which offers a significant amount of the panel to reduce reverberation levels to a more higher level.
Some will opt to include free-standing acoustic panels or suspended acoustic partitions to create temporary walls for pods and room separation that can have precision cut beautiful murals that still offers sound absorption while maintaining a free-flowing and open environment, reducing the need for glass partitioning.
However, for those wanting to use glass partitioning - and our Suspended Note™ and Wall Note™ can be installed either to the ceiling grid or to concrete/timber constructions above to lower the reflective sound in the room and reduce problematic soundscapes for communication, like a teleconference for example, while still being transparent with any chosen customisable mural or other cut out.
The best choice here is to use
Moreover, there are some that wish to blend into their environment but still keep the soundscape at its best by using
The bold look to get creative and weave in brand colour schemes with complete bespoke designs and structures by using the tools we provide at your disposal to merge art installations with sound control, creating a visually stimulating environment across each space.
If you want to be the bold workplace of colour, sculpture and focused sound, we recommend the following:
We can help to visualise your idea within any given space - you can read more on our Bespoke Interiors, call our fantastic team on 01937 688 225 or click on our chat box on the bottom right and say ‘Hello!’
Soundproofing Solutions from MuteRange™
When sound transmits from room to room it affects performance and causes disruption - it is here that we would need to assess each space and what noise sources are to be expected or are currently being conducted.
Our MuteClip® options off the best soundproofing against both airborne and impact noise, both usually found in abundance in the workplace through all sorts of partitions, concrete and joist ceilings, brick, block and stud framing - MuteClip® is suitable for all of these!
Scenarios where MuteClip® may apply
For use between meeting rooms where stud framing is used, replacing the use of lightweight partition materials
Requiring soundproofing for joist ceiling constructions that currently offers poor soundproofing
Use in Audio Visual rooms located adjacent to noise sensitive spaces
Interview or private rooms where privacy levels are needed
In wellness and therapy areas that require very low levels of noise interference
Where large groups of staff are engaged in telecommunications and adjacent areas, need
If any additional activities such as in-house gymnasiums, private bars or dining areas are in close proximity
MuteMat™ 2 and MuteMat™ 3 have both been hugely successful in office soundproofing, especially if an old timber structure presents footfall from above in hard floor areas, or to improve sound control against airborne noise for meeting rooms.
Scenarios where MuteMat™ may apply
Where heavy or high volume foot traffic is expected
If offices from above create noise in private offices below
For use in combination with our MuteClip® System to reduce high impact areas
For Audio Visual rooms above to help provide suspension to the floor
For large concrete structures that offer inadequate soundproofing against impact noise, both new build and existing - we would use our MuteMat™ OSF (an acoustic over screed floor) or USF/USP (an acoustic under screed) range as our most suitable option - for when airborne is problematic this can be paired with our ceiling options found in MuteClip®.
Scenarios where MuteMat™ OSF or USF/USP may apply
For use in large concrete builds that require footfall and general impact noises reduced
Soundproof under screeds for used in any machine plant rooms or air conditioning rooms
MuteBoard™ is our slimline wall soundproofing option that helps to reduce low to medium levels of airborne noise, so for example, if there is a background conversation being conducted that isn't intrusive but still slightly disruptive - MuteBoard™ would be a genuine option to be applied for when space is a real concern.
Scenarios where MuteBoard™ may apply
For when available wall space is at a premium
To be used in areas where there is less noise sensitivity, between general service rooms
Combining with other soundproofing products such as MuteClip® for high volume areas like teleconferencing rooms or team meeting rooms
MuteCradle™ creates a void between concrete and subfloor levels that help to improve both airborne and impact noise but also allows servicing to be run through the office without the need for any boxing or exposure to untidy fixings that could otherwise be run under the flooring. This void is treated with a high-density Acoustic Mineral Wool so that any noise in it does not resonate or flank into other spaces.
Scenarios where MuteCradle™ may apply
For when optimum soundproofing for flooring of audio-visual rooms located above
Used to create an access floating floor construction that couples as a soundproof option
When screed is too costly of a measure in concrete builds