People spend approximately 20% of their lives in a work environment. That doesn’t sound too terribly bad, until you do the math and figure out it’s close to 100,000 hours (40 hrs/wk, 52 wks/yr, for 45 years or so). That is a LOT of time staring at gray/beige (greige?) cubicle walls. As companies financially expand or contract, so follows the need for physical office space. People get moved around, and what was once a suitable acoustical solution may no longer be the case.

Welcome to Cubicle-ville. Population: billions.
Many companies choose to lease their office space, and the lease dictates what physical changes can (and can’t) be made to the space. Often the electrical, plumbing, and heating are already established and are difficult or costly to modify at the time of move-in. Companies have to make the best of a non-optimal situation for setting their employees up (literally) for success.

For some companies, the solution is an open floor plan. For others, it’s a cube farm. Regardless, noise is one of the biggest issues that employees have to deal with. People talk on the phone or with one another, copy and fax machines are on a constant churn, and don’t even get me started about the bathroom.

Some people become accustomed to a fairly high ambient noise level, while others retreat to the cozy womb of their noise-cancelling headphones. Certain departments gravitate toward one extreme or the other. Customer service is on the phone a lot, so they get used to higher background noise. Engineers typically shun noise, light, and all forms of external stimuli.

Office Noise_1-03Office Noise_2-04

In his recent AV Technology News article, “8 Steps to Improve Your Noisy Office,” tech ind­­ustry journalist, Tim Kridel discusses employee efficiency in the wake of office noise: There’s a compelling business case for eliminating what acousticians refer to as ‘conversational distractions.’ It makes employees more productive. A trio of studies found that eliminating conversational distractions produced a 48% increase in office workers’ ability to focus on their tasks, while error rates improved 10%.”

Many companies make the mistake of a one-size-fits-all approach when setting up cubicles in that everyone wants/needs the same setup. It makes it doubly hard then, for an integrator to come in and determine optimal audio solutions. For instance, does the audio configuration even support zoning, so that overhead pages don’t blast in the engineers’ ultra-quiet area because they have to be played louder in customer service? Are the high walls that engineering requested requiring the customer service folks to talk louder? To avoid the unnecessary costs of redoing a failed or limited audio system,” says Kridel, “educate your accountant or financial point person. Explain the bottom-line benefits of sound reinforcement and the noise/distraction causality.”

Another issue is filling a space with cubicles without considering future growth for the department. “We have five people now, so we will put five or six cubicles here.” The integrator comes in, provides the best solution they can, and moves on to a new job. And…the company just hired the seventh person for the department. Yikes. Cubicles get reconfigured, or the department gets moved to another part of the building. Welcome back, Mr. Integrator, for round two.

Bottom line: Never consider an office layout “final.” Make the audio design as flexible as possible, because you’re probably going to need it.

The dark arts of good HVAC layout
Invariably, you will at one point find yourself sitting directly beneath an HVAC vent, and your cubicle or office will double as a meat locker or sauna depending on the time of year. Or day.

HVAC is a significant source of noise in any building. Exposed ducting can even rattle if not secured properly. Granted, some of that noise can be offset in a drop ceiling environment via insulation and ceiling treatments. You still need to be aware of it when fine-tuning the room design. For instance, are the speakers right next to the vent? Is it on a controlled cycle so that you can set levels based upon the time of day? At what point do you recommend to the client that they implement a sound masking solution?

Ideally, HVAC should be zoned similar to an audio layout. There have been lots of advancements in HVAC that help too, such as controllable zoned ducting and multi-stage fans. Some companies even conduct an airflow study similar to profiling a room’s acoustics to reduce hot/cold spots and lower their HVAC energy bills. For instance, an arbitrarily placed thermostat may lead to unexpected results if cool air is channeled over it regularly when the office layout is rearranged.

Reinvest in your office environment
Almost everything degrades with age (farewell, youthful exuberance!). Cubicle walls get damaged during moves, office chair padding slowly breaks down, carpets wear out. Inch by inch this can impact the office acoustics – the carpet becomes more reflective, cubicle walls become a little more acoustically transparent, HVAC noise increases as burner efficiency decays.

Employees have a vested interest in the configuration of their workspace because it directly impacts their job satisfaction, which in turn affects their job performance. Spending time and energy on optimizing office sound levels, replacing worn out furniture and sprucing things up occasionally (goodbye, 70’s paint scheme!) will reap immediate benefits.

Much like an annual physical, you should consider a regularly scheduled acoustic “check-up.” Is the background noise level within an acceptable threshold? Does the sound masking need to be adjusted? Is the new conference room table more reflective than the old one? Have the cubicles been reconfigured?

Excessive noise has a detrimental effect on our health and on our productivity. When you’re more productive working in a Starbucks than in your own office, there’s a problem. To learn how to better design a space for maximum worker efficiency, read all of the articles in “The IT Manager’s Guide to Sound Improvement” by the editors of AV Technology News, and sponsored by Biamp.