Five Principles for Promoting Acoustic Comfort in the Workplace

Allsteel shares their top five ways of dealing with noise in the office. For more on the topic, check out “Acoustic Comfort in the Workplace: Getting Back to the Basics,” an original white paper by Jan Johnson of Allsteel and Dr. Kenneth P. Roy of Armstrong, available here.

An Allsteel installation showing Beyond Walls and Hedge at Barbaricum in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Allsteel.

An Allsteel installation showing Beyond Walls and Hedge at Barbaricum in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Allsteel.

As the workplace evolves, some organizations are trying to drive efficiency by pushing more workers into smaller open plan spaces, often compromising employee acoustic comfort. The problems of noise and speech distractions are real: Surveys conducted by the University of California consistently show acoustic quality as the single factor that elicits disapproval from office building occupants (see Fig. 1); and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program has recognized the issue by including a new credit for acoustics in the requirements for LEED Interior Design and Construction. The open-plan office (sometimes rightly) gets the blame for this problem. Even popular media has gotten in on the act: A July 2013 ABC News post decrying dysfunctional aspects of the modern workspace was entitled “Proof that Open Plan Offices Are Satan’s Handiwork”. Situation-specific acoustical design has become even more critical.

The best way to deal with the noise problem is by following proven principles that address speech intelligibility and concentration within spaces, and speech privacy and annoyance between spaces. We should focus both on good planning and on the thoughtful application of architectural elements to provide the acoustical performance needed to support the range and types of work being done. Allsteel believes the following five interdependent guiding principles are very relevant in creating an acoustically comfortable environment.

  1. Get the mix of settings right to satisfy the breadth of activities being done

Given what we now understand about how work has changed, the workplace should no longer consist of mostly “I” space. We used to believe that 80–90 percent of a person’s work was completed at their desk, and from there assumed that roughly the same percentage of time was spent at their desk. However, today, we know that most workers average only 35–50 percent of their time in their assigned seats, which tells us that work is happening in other places. So we need to plan other kinds of shared settings to support the 50–65 percent of their time in the office NOT spent at their desks: time spent in deep concentration, or in a private discussion, or in various types of active collaboration with others. Just throwing workers into open plan without creating these complementary settings will surely create the kinds of dysfunction now being portrayed in the press.

  1. Zone for acoustical comfort during planning

Adjacencies tell us what needs to be near what—like placing a team’s project room close by instead of down the hall somewhere. Or locating the more public spaces along major circulation paths so the traffic to and from those spaces doesn’t cut through a quieter zone. Once we satisfy critical adjacencies between workers and work activities, we should also explore the spatial impact of zoning on acoustical comfort.  An “Interaction Area” where loud, noise-generating activities can be clustered, should be segregated away from a “Focus Area” that supports individual activities requiring focus and concentration. And these spaces need to be separate from those that support very private, confidential or personal work and conversations—a “Privacy Area.” This reduces the likelihood of competing acoustical strategies canceling each other out, and the users being unsure about what they can reasonably expect from each setting.

An Allsteel installation showing Inspire Stools at Yuba College in Marysville, Calif. Image courtesy of John Swain.

An Allsteel installation showing Inspire Stools at Yuba College in Marysville, Calif. Image courtesy of John Swain.

  1. Adhere to the “ABC” model of acoustic design

“A” stands for sound absorptive materials, which can be used to control the amount of reflected sound within a room, like certain ceiling and wall treatments, and absorptive surfaces on furniture.

“B” stands for sound blocking (transmission loss—a good thing) between spaces.“C” refers to the ability of background noise and specifically electronic sound masking to cover intruding noises such as speech within a space so that it is either not intelligible or even audible to unintended listeners. (Armstrong Commercial Ceilings and Wall Systems has several excellent papers discussing these three strategies in detail, including “Working by Design” and “Rx for Improving Patient Outcomes.”)

  1. Drive new workplace behaviors with design, protocols, and group norms

Allsteel adds another letter to the ABC model: “D” for drive new behavior in the workplace with design, protocols and group norms that encourage situationally appropriate actions. These may be as simple as not using speakerphones in open spaces or devising an agreement to move long conversations into an “Interaction Space.” It may take time for norms to be established but they will help users to get the most from their workspaces. The best laid plans and designs will fail if behaviors are not consistent with the intentions of the space.

  1. Provide adjustable acoustical solutions for evolving workplaces

New ways of working add to the complexity of getting the acoustics right. So Allsteel adds a final letter to the model: “E” for evolve, which suggests some of our acoustic solutions should be adjustable (like sound masking that allows us to set different levels of volume in each space) or moveable/relocatable. These might include furniture components like screens, moveable walls, acoustic panels, or other components that help to absorb sound.  Relocatable walls can both effectively absorb and block sound while being easily and quickly moved or reconfigured. Other products, like absorptive panels, clouds and baffles can be moved from one location to another with ease.

Figure 1: POE Survey Results

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This article was sponsored by Allsteel.



  • Luis Cominelli says:

    Regarding the model ABCDE, for my point of view, the letter “D” is the most difficult to implement but the best alternative for a permanent solution.
    At the very beginning, the office may be very well designed, with specific materials and acoustic solutions. Beautiful!
    But, when you start to use that space, you start to redesign that space because there are new needs, rework the layout, etc, ABC and even “E”… gone.
    But the “D” remains, because is inherent to the people that work/live that space, even in the case that new coworkers share the space.

  • Ivy Baker says:

    I liked that you talked about how you should make sure that you follow the ABCs. I liked that you talked about how B stands for blocking out a sound. If there is a lot of noise going on where I am trying to work I have a hard time working.

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