Essential Guide to Office Acoustics

Modern offices are increasingly based on open-plan designs, with vast, open spaces that allow employees to collaborate, communicate, and engage with each other. Open-plan offices also typically offer better natural light and ventilation.

Although open-plan offices offer a range of benefits, they also come with their own challenges, including managing office acoustics.

And, if your office doesn’t have the right acoustic measures in place, it can lead to decreased productivity and stress.

What are acoustics?

From the Greek word akouein, meaning ‘to hear’, acoustics is the science of sound.

In this context, however, acoustics refers to the properties of a room or building that determine how sound is transmitted within it.

Abstracta airflake acoustic hanging panel in white divider for any office space

The causes of office noise

The way that offices work has changed, and this has had a significant impact on noise levels. Most people who work in offices have been affected by noise, even if they haven’t realised it.

Office noise is caused by a number of different sources, including:

  • Background noise – mechanical, technical, and electronic equipment
  • Fluctuating noise – such as conversations and ringing phones
  • Activity noise –footsteps, typing, chewing, etc
  • High-frequency noise – usually from electronic equipment
  • Transportation noise – coming from traffic outside

As well as different causes of noise, there are also different types of noise:

  • Direct sound – Sound that hasn’t reacted with the environment before it reaches your ears
  • Refracted sound – This is sound that interacts with a surface and is then sent bouncing back. It can be particularly problematic when combined with direct sound, as the brain is exposed to two similar, but different, noises at the same time
  • Reverberated sound – Noises reverberate as they dissipate into a space. While one reverberated sound at any one time is fine, multiple reverberated sounds can be difficult for the brain to process.

Why office acoustics are important

Poor acoustics can lead to too much noise, which in turn can have a huge impact on the workforce, with small disturbances being enough to break employees’ concentration and increase their stress levels.

A 2018 study by Udemy found that 70% of employees believed office noise to be the biggest distraction in the workplace.

A further study found that reducing distracting noise can lead to:

  • 48% increase in employee focus
  • 51% reduction in employee distractions
  • 10% fewer errors
  • 27% reduction in stress levels.

As a result, good acoustics are essential for productivity, creativity, and employee satisfaction.

Further benefits of good office acoustics include:

  • Increased productivity – good acoustics reduce background noises and create a comfortable environment for employees to complete their daily tasks.
  • Improved employee satisfaction – excessive noise levels in the workplace can have a negative impact on the health of employees, both physically and mentally.
  • Stylish office design – acoustic solutions can add a stylish touch to any office space, adding character and points of interest.

Abstracta airleaf acoustic hanging panels multi coloured

How much noise is too much?

Employees can tolerate a certain amount of noise, however, too much noise can be distracting, stressful, and harmful to productivity.

But creating good acoustics and a balanced level of noise in an open-plan office can be extremely challenging. Total silence isn’t necessary, or productive, but there need to be spaces where employees can work undisturbed.

According to a 2012 study, 70 decibels is the optimum sound level for creativity and productivity in creative tasks. That’s around the level of sound you’d expect to hear in a busy coffee shop or restaurant.

When exposed to low volume (50 decibels) and high volume (85 decibels) noise, participants did not perform as well.

The Health and Safety Executive imposes regulations on Noise at Work, however, these rarely apply to office environments, unless the office is attached to a manufacturing facility, as an example.

9 ways to improve office acoustics

Noise can be a huge problem in the workplace, and modern office spaces seem to be making the issue worse. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to help improve office acoustics and reduce the impact of noise, by absorbing, blocking, or covering the noise.

Acoustic requirements vary from office to office, depending on the space and how it is used. However, the factors below can be widely applied to help improve office acoustics.

Plenty of plants

As well as looking great and bringing some freshness to an office, indoor plants help to absorb sound. So, if you’re trying to improve acoustics in your office, introducing greenery such as ferns and palms can be an affordable yet effective approach. Living walls are another, increasingly popular, option.

Ambient noise

Introducing more noise into the office might seem counterproductive, but ambient noise can actually help by creating a smooth, unified sound. Sounds such as nature recordings, coffee shop ambience, or even light jazz tend to be most effective.

Consider your layout

Different departments work in different ways, some will need to communicate regularly while others won’t need to interact with each other much during the working day. Arranging teams together, and in a way that works for the nature of their work, can significantly help reduce noise.

Creating loud and quiet zones for high and low energy workgroups will reduce acoustic disruptions. You should also incorporate dedicated break areas and encourage your team to take their breaks away from their desks to minimise unnecessary noise.

Office Plants

Choose your furniture wisely

Your office furniture can have a significant impact on your office acoustics.

High-backed chairs and sofas, for example, provide an increased level of privacy for conversations, while also reducing the overall noise level in the office by absorbing the sound.

Adding cabinets and bookshelves, as well as hanging pictures and acoustic art on the walls, can also help absorb noise.

Desks and chairs also play a role. If your office chairs are on legs, make sure they are fitted with felt pads, and any chairs that are on castors should roll over sound-absorbent material, such as carpet.

Meeting pods

Meeting pods and cubicles allow businesses to create rooms within rooms; employees can have meetings and discussions with greater privacy while minimising the sound both within and outside the meeting pod. They also look great and add to the overall aesthetic of the office.

Social Room Funky Pods

Floors and ceilings

Providing a surface that can be sound-absorbing or insulating, or a mixture of the two, ceilings have the biggest impact on the acoustic quality of open-plan offices.

Sound often travels up and bounces off the ceiling, so taking measures to insulate or absorb the sound can have a significant impact.

Acoustic tiles can help reduce the reverberation of sound around the workspace, they are often suspended from the ceiling to provide a sound-absorbing effect for the whole office. Sound-absorbing ceiling screens, also known as baffles, can also help to minimise noise travelling through the air.

Floor mats and carpets can help absorb footsteps and other noise. Carpets absorb sound and block noise from the floor below.

Room dividers

Room dividers and partitions work well as sound insulators.

Even in open-plan offices, there need to be private spaces for meetings or confidential discussions.

Room dividers are versatile and affordable and can be used to create private, quiet spaces when needed. And, as well as creating separate areas, dividers and partitions can also be used around the office as feature walls – absorbing noise and conversations, while adding to the office design.

There are various screens and dividers available to meet your needs, including mobile screens, floor standing screens, desk mounted screens, and suspended panels.

Allsfar acoustic panel daisy design green blue

Use sound-absorbing materials

When it comes to sound absorption, the softer the material, the more effective it will typically be.

Hard surfaces, such as desks, windows, and hard floors, don’t absorb sound well. Instead, the sound is reflected and then continues to travel until it is reflected off another surface.  Using sound-absorbing materials where possible can help limit excess noise.

Lining the underside of desks with acoustic foam, for example, can help reduce noise, without impacting the design or functionality of the room.

BT Office Furniture

If you are looking for some advice for improving your office acoustics, our experts are always available to help you.

Since its formation in 1994, BT Office has become a leading UK office furniture supplier. We have a wide range of office furniture for acoustics available that are perfect for use at home and work.

Get in touch today to find out how we can help you choose your perfect office.