‘The building’s easy, the architecture’s easy. It’s thinking about how to use the buildings that really is challenging.’ So said Frank Duffy, founder of DEGW and doyenne of office design. And he’s right of course.
New ways of working mean that employees need to be provided with a variety of environments where people can perform different tasks: break out areas for meetings, quiet spaces for high concentration jobs and informal areas designed so that people can bump into each and spark new ideas.
So far so good, but this also brings a new set of issues, and acoustics are high on the list. In 2015 a World Green Building Council (WGBC) report found that background noise can lead to as high as a 66% drop in effectiveness, while a UK study found that noise and lack of privacy was the biggest reason for workplace dissatisfaction.
This was less of problem in the traditional open plan scenario – when pools of typists would sit in virtual silence overlooked by a manager who almost certainly was a disciple of then new-fangled Taylorist management theory – but now work is all about collaboration, connectivity and ad hoc meetings. The fact of the matter is we make more of a racket now then we used to.
The current design preference for more functional internal architecture, with exposed ceilings and greater use of attractive hard finishes such as Corian, tiles and timber floors can accentuate the noise problem. These are often new and experimental finishes so the noise levels cannot be predicted and therefore solved until after the space has been lived in.
There are particular touch points in spaces that we know have the potential to cause a noise distractions, for example the natural juxtaposition of a hard surfaced reception spaces and the client facing business lounge, which will typically comprise softer furnishing. The noise from the a busy lounge area where meetings take place can often bounce into the quieter reception area. Workplace design, smart acoustics and timely building commissioning can minimise noise distraction, but frequently predicting how sounds are going to move through a space seems more of an art than science.
This has led some companies to experiment with masking systems, which create ‘pink/white noise’ designed to distract workers from the general hubbub of office life and increase productivity. We also see occupiers using sound absorbing materials to absorb sound. Acoustic ceiling tiles and baffles are part of a solution.
Surely in the true spirit of agile working we need to ensure that the right type of space is always available to suit the esoteric needs of every individual, whether a worker enjoys the chatter of their team mates, or needs complete silence to complete a report. The other side of this is then to empower and encourage staff to move to the most appropriate space.