Open office spaces with movable partitions and reconfigurable workstations have become more than a hot trend in office facility design; they have become the new normal. As acoustical consultants, we often work on open office spaces, and we always begin the conversation with something we call “The ABCs of Open Office Acoustics.”
Absorb – Block – Cover. These are the ABC’s of acoustical engineering for office acoustics. Absorption is the one everyone has heard of. The principal of absorption is identifying how much sound needs to be “soaked up” or absorbed, so as to optimize the amount of reflections in the space. And yes, there is an optimal amount. The goal is not simply to add as much absorption as possible. At ABD we set a reverberation time criteria for each space, then we use computer models to help us design and configure the absorption solution.
The second consideration is Blocking sound – blocking the right amount of the right sounds in the right way. The most common worker complaint in open office facilities is the noise level from all the other employees working nearby… especially when your desk is right next to “Loud Talker Bob” (no offense Bob). Some complain of a lack of privacy between workstations, while others say the noisy environment distracts them and reduces their productivity. So the challenge for acoustical consultants is to design sound blocking solutions for open office spaces where the office partition height may not be higher than 48” or 60”.
The final consideration is Covering the sound, or “masking” the sound. Believe it or not, acoustical consultants do not always recommend making spaces quieter. In fact, an open office space can be ideal for an electronic sound masking system, which raises the noise floor in order to increase worker privacy and productivity. For how that works, read Kristen Murphy’s blog on sound masking. Open office facilities need to be reconfigurable, so there may be limited opportunities for a) absorbing and b) blocking the sound. Covering some of the sound with an electronic sound masking system can be a great option if designed and deployed with precision.
Open office acoustics are complex, and so are the solutions. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. At Acoustics By Design, we specialize at resolving acoustical issues in open office acoustics. If you’re at your wits end, give us a call to discuss how we can help.