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How to Reduce Noise Levels in an Open Office

Posted on Jun 6, 2016, by Michael Eckert

Noise is the biggest barrier to productivity in the open office. From overheard phone calls to the clattering of a hundred keyboards, relatively small, insignificant sounds can quickly accumulate into one big noise problem.

If you’re looking to improve productivity and collaboration in your open office, it’s time to tackle that noise problem, head-on. Today, we’re looking at 4 actionable ways to reduce noise levels in your office.

Featured image: Cisco - San Francisco, California, USA

1) Soften Up Hard Surfaces

Hard surfaces are pretty terrible at absorbing noise: think of a warehouse or gymnasium, and you’ll conjure up the sound of booming voices and echoing footsteps.

Unfortunately, many open plan offices use hard surfaces throughout their space, with hard tiled floors, concrete walls and metal furniture. As a result, sounds are bounced throughout the space, creating a noise problem for the entire office. So, to reduce noise levels, it’s a great idea to soften up those hard surfaces.

Furnishings

Soft furnishings can break-up the design aesthetic of your open plan office, and better still, help absorb errant noises. Sofas in your breakout space and upholstered desk chairs will have a surprising impact on noise levels.

Structural Changes

Office noise problems are often worsened by structure-borne noise: sounds that are transmitted through the building structure.

If you’re about to undergo a major office redesign, this can be a great opportunity to improve the acoustic profile of your building: opting for fiberglass or cellulose wall insulation, replacing windows with double (or even triple) paned glass, and swapping hollow doors for solid alternatives.  If you’re one of a growing number of organizations opting for raised access flooring, you can install it in conjunction with cushion backed carpet to dramatically reduce impact noise.

Flooring

Your flooring covers your entire office space – so it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that changes to your flooring can have a huge impact on noise levels.

Traditional hard flooring products, like wood and concrete, are poor at absorbing sound, and worsen noise problems. Instead, you can create the same aesthetic without compromising on noise, by opting for Vinyl Composite Tile (VCT), Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) or a specialized noise-reducing underlayment. These hard backed products are available in a huge range of designs, but importantly, offer improved noise absorption over other hard surface alternatives.

Carpet tiles offer the ultimate in noise reduction, with cushion-backed carpet tiles able to absorb 50% more noise than hard-backed carpet, which in turn, absorbs 3x more noise than hard flooring. As well as improving productivity and wellness through improved noise levels, cushion-backed carpet tiles are fantastic for facilitating sit-to-stand working.

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2) Experiment with Sound Masking

Certain sounds are more distracting than others, and in most open offices, overheard speech is the biggest productivity killer around, capable of reducing performance by as much as two thirds.

This can be problematic: improved collaboration is one of the biggest benefits of open office working, but the sound of neighbors engrossed in conversation can be extremely detrimental to the work of other employees. So, to combat this problem, some organizations have taken an unusual step: using other sounds to block out conversation noise.

This is known as sound masking: using ambient noises to cover up other types of more disruptive sound. From ‘white noise’ to the sound of rainfall, growing numbers of organizations are experimenting with novel ways to mask distracting background noise, without preventing productive conversations.

3) Introduce Plants Into Your Open Office

From improving indoor air quality, to boosting employees’ all-around health and wellness, the humble office plant has a lot going for it – including the ability to reduce excess noise.

Leafy plants are particularly effective at absorbing sound, and can make a real difference in areas where soft furnishings might not be suitable. Given their attractive aesthetic, a few carefully chosen plants could make a great addition to your open office.

4) Encourage Freedom of Movement

Even with effective noise management in place, certain parts of your open office will be noisier than others. Some employees may receive a high-volume of phone calls, and foot traffic may be higher in a particular part of the space – and it can be hard to control this variance in noise.

By allowing employees the freedom to change locations within the office, either by hot desking, creating small enclosed breakout areas for small meetings or phone calls, or even physically relocating their workspace, they can choose the type of work environment that suits them best. Whether they work better in a quiet corner of the office, or prefer to be in the hustle-and-bustle of a vibrant environment, freedom of movement will help cater to the working styles of all employees.

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Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert