Office noise reduction is a common issue. The trend toward open floor plan office spaces with low cubicle walls is great for many reasons but when it comes to noise control it can be a nightmare. We’ll cover some of the best ways to deal with noise and soundproofing in the typical office environment.
Today’s office often includes large, flexible open plan rooms. An open plan office is good at facilitating interpersonal communication and information exchange. Used by many of today’s company’s there is also a big disadvantage to this type of office. Different office workers or groups tend to disturb each other. For example a telephone call from one office worker to for a client is heard by all in the room. Resulting in a distraction of the others that always costs some time to recover from, if recovered at all.
The ideal open office plan is creating a sound environment that makes for easy interpersonal information exchange while not disturbing the colleagues nearby. What may be important information for the two people communicating, may be annoying a third and forth in the room that were concentrating for their tasks at hand.
Most open plan offices consist of large windows and sound-reflective walls. By using a lot of glass and parallel walls not a lot of sound reduction is going on. Hard surfaces like glass and walls reflect sound, making for a long ‘echo’ in the room. Parallel walls make for extra amplification of specific unwanted tones in the audible sound spectrum. A ‘hard’ ground surface like cement or linoleum together with no extra acoustical ceiling treatment makes for the worst scenario possible.
Before our advice we would like to state that a lot of light in a open plan office room is highly desirable. The acoustical disadvantages that come with the use of glass can be undone by other aspects in the room. Natural light is has a very positive effect on people.
Always start with the ceiling. It’s essential that this area, which is (together with the floor) the largest in the room, gets acoustical treatment. A good ceiling product hangs ‘loose’ from the actual ceiling and absorbs and insulates the sound from within the room. This is especially good for preventing sound from travelling to the other side of the room. If this isn’t enough, install extra, so called ‘free hanging acoustic baffles’ and ‘acoustic desk panels’. These products are most efficient when placed directly above and between the origin of sound. The height of an acoustic desk panel is best picked with the function of the workstations between them in mind. An international phone support team needs higher ones than a research work group working on the same projects!
For optimum productivity sometimes extra measures need to be taken to let office workers concentrate on their own. This can be done by adding so called ‘hubs’ or ‘booths’ inside office area. These products create a room within a room, making concentrating on a task and / or having a meeting without disturbing others easy. Pricing of these products can be high, but they often can’t be beat when compared to installing flexible (glass) walls.
Tip: Printers and/or servers are often a source of unwanted sound. The best way to eliminate this is surrounding them by ‘half height’ flexible walls.
Tip: Office cabinets are often made of steel, some manufacturers sell ‘magnetic acoustic backpanels’ to easily install acoustic treatment on the back side.
For every company a meeting room is of great importance. Decisions are made here, clients are invited here, presentations are given here and conference calls and meetings are attended here. Sound clarity and sound isolation are of utmost importance in this key room. This should be a place where people can hear and talk to each other without any loss of information, both to the sender and receiver as to the rest of the attendants. Sound loss to the outside is unthinkable as this room is meant to be private.
Conference rooms come in all sorts of types, unfortunately in most company’s they don’t get the attention they deserve. They are often treated like a normal, but bigger, cubicle office. This means glass or thin walls and a standard ‘drop ceiling’ of some type. As with all rooms, parallel walls and / or square rooms are common. A conference call system is sometimes installed, with random speaker placement and a projector with slide down or fixed projection screen.
The ceiling of a conference room is of utmost importance. You will want the best possible drop ceiling tiles possible. This is because of the fact that in most conference rooms there are zero to no extra furniture items installed except for a large desk and some chairs. Secondly the walls deserve a lot of attention. No noise is permitted to enter the room from outside with the door closed, and even more important no information is permitted to leave the room. Ensuring maximum privacy of the conversation inside the walls of reasonable specs are needed. Best is to use double ‘free standing’ walls. Which means 2 walls with a small air gap in between. No contact is permitted between these to walls. If one must use glass walls or they are not sufficient try to install hanging blinds or curtains of some kind of fabric like felt. Plastic blinds are not so effective. When done right one can shout inside the room with the door closed and not be heard in the surrounding rooms.
Also make sure at least ⅓ off the wall area is covered with acoustic panels of sound absorbing material. This amount is needed to minimize echo inside, giving superb speech clarity. When the room is used for conference calls this is even more important. The reason for this is that the microphones which are used here are easily distorted by to much echo. When this is the case the other party on the conference call will not be able to fully understand every nuance and tone in one’s speech. This can be of critical importance when doing international business or dealing with multiple languages.
Tip: The door used must be of hard, solid quality with a good air tight sealing. Heavy means better!
The more traditional way of organizing the work area is through cubicle and small offices. Essentially this means a separated work environment for each employee. Though not as cost efficient for most types of office workers, cubicles and small offices work well when the employee works on very complex or creative solutions. Having minimal distractions as possible is key here. Another very important point is noise isolation. We dont want any unwanted sounds from other rooms or worse, outside noise, getting the employee out of their concentration zone. The cubicle office, as opposed to the open plan office limits easy communication with co-workers.
These one or two people rooms often consist of thin sheetrock walls and/or glass. The walls of such an office are better if not square or parallel to each other acoustics wise, but unfortunately this is often the case. Ceilings are always very important acoustically, but for small offices they tend to be more so. Meaning there is some kind of drop ceiling or ceiling tiles installed. If not: make this your priority. Square and parallel walls make for extra amplification of specific unwanted tones in the audible spectrum so try to avoid them!
As described in the previous section, start with the ceiling. Make sure to use a good drop ceiling. Secondly if your office has glass walls, which are very bad acoustically, often the opposing wall is sheetrock or possibly a brick or concrete. Try to cover these walls with ‘wall panels’ at ear height. Or even better, the whole wall. If for some reason glass walls oppose each other try sound panels on both sides. For every two parallel walls threat at least one of them. This should limit ‘echo’ sounds from becoming too loud.
Also very important is sound isolation. If this is a problem in your office try to get an idea of which wall is the most problematic ‘sound conductor’. The only real solution for this is to put an extra free standing wall in front of this wall. There should be no contact between the two walls for optimal result.
Most cubicles are very well designed to limit sound reflections. The height of the cubicle walls will determine how sound isolated they are. If addressing a room with existing cubicles or planning a new installation be sure to consider the following:
Tip: If its hard or unwanted to fix panels or extra treatment to the walls try to use free hanging ‘acoustical baffles’ above the problem area. This attacks the problem at the source, thus doing maximum acoustical dampening.
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