Noise and Open Office Work Environments

Design of office spaces has moved from traditional private office layouts to “open office” layouts. While the increasing costs of business real estate and the lack of available space are key factors that drive the shift to an open office, employers also cite the potential for greater interaction and collaboration among employees as a potential benefit of open office designs.

However, research has found that noise disturbances and a loss of conversation privacy are problems that may outweigh any benefits gained through collaboration. Noise disturbances can be an annoyance for employees. Noise can come from movement of nearby employees and their furniture/workstations, office equipment (copiers, printers, etc), and even employee conversations. In fact, employee surveys indicate that noise associated with nearby conversations are a significant impediment to productivity.

In an open office, how can we best continue to benefit from the potential collaborative, cost and space advantages, without being impacted by noise distractions? In this blog post, we present some strategies you may be interested in considering to help decrease noise levels and improve privacy:

  1. If you participate in conference calls, and require taking notes or using your computer while talking, consider using a headset instead of speakerphone – which can be very disruptive to other people in your office layout. A high quality headset will also ensure that employees do not have to raise their voices to be heard while on the phone, limiting the risk of disrupting their co-workers.
  2. For privacy and to reduce noise levels, allow for a private office or ‘breakout room’ where group discussions can occur without interrupting employees who are not involved in the meeting. A breakout room might also be appropriate for telephone calls and teleconferences.
  3. If noise cannot be eliminated at the source (for example, a photocopy machine), absorbing it by using acoustical barriers or cancelling it with an anti-noise device may be an option. Here are some options for absorbing and cancelling noise:
    1. Have the employees wear noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs
    2. Have the employees wear earphones and listen to music. Keep in mind that music without lyrics is less distracting, and the volume in the headphones should be low enough that it
      cannot be overheard by other employees. It is also important to consider the impact high volumes would have on hearing health.
    3. Install acoustical barriers. For example, install higher cubicle walls or sound proofing panels/walls to absorb some of the sounds.
    4. Install a sound masking system or noise masking sounds. These devices create neutral noises, similar to ventilation noise. These devices are typically installed in the space above the ceiling to increase ambient background sound level, and reduce the ability to clearly hear background speech and other noises.

What are your experiences working in an open office layout? Do you have strategies to deal with noise distractions? Let us know in the comments below!