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Thoughts on Open Office Noise

April 30, 2015

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This article was written by architect Colby Dearman.

As designers of many different types of workplace environments, we juggle a lot of an organization’s priorities. Perhaps the factor given the most weight in this constant analysis is work place noise. This article from the Harvard Business Review focuses on how to prevent noise from ruining your workplace experience.

Every office has the loud coworker who has made their cubicle mates intimately familiar with not only the projects they are working on, but what they are having for dinner that night. It isn’t just annoying anecdotes about spouses that clutter the soundscape of the office, however, mechanical systems; office equipment; and group gathering spaces all contribute to the overall noise level of an office.

As we design, we try to balance all of a company’s workspace needs and aesthetic desires while being conscious of the work being done there and the organization’s brand. It’s our goal to tune a space that’s reflective of the overall message the company is trying to send to both its visitors and employees.

For example: picture a Gothic French cathedral. What if you walked in to deafening quiet, and you never heard footsteps echo through the nave? You, as a visitor, would feel strange. The space is tuned to have reverberation and a ‘live’ sound – it’s part of the overall ambiance, and provides a sense of awe. The cathedral’s design is intended to evoke a certain feeling while you’re in it. We do the same thing for office environments; we tune them to fit the overall feeling.

To take that concept of “tuning” a space for optimal function one step further, we zone the noise to create quiet areas as well as noisy, collaborative spaces. Those social spaces are just as important as their quiet counterparts in creating a healthy workplace environment. Once you’ve established quiet zones and noisier spaces, mix in some design appropriate materials that either absorb or scatter sound and you have a much more productive workplace.

Each type of work environment has to be approached differently. Design approach is not one size fits all; our tactics are specific to the environment in which we are working. The kind of space allocation that works for a financial institution does not necessarily work for an equipment distributor, or a healthcare provider. Each space is unique and requires an individual noise plan. Here’s hoping for a future of better designed offices, and fewer plugged in workers.

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