Decoding Design

Quieting the buzz around the office

Quieting the buzz around the office

Posting in Design

How do offices balance the desire for collaboration with the need for privacy and discretion?

The clickety clack of keyboards and the yakkety yak of co-workers contribute to the most common complaint of open offices: the noise problem. In an article for the Science section of the New York Times, John Tierney writes that the noise problem has grown so big that engineers and scientists are now involved.

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia,researchers at the University of California Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of “speech privacy,” making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

“In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices,” said John Goins, the leader of the survey conducted by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. “The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem.”

Open plan offices are meant to encourage communication, collaboration, and innovation. But removing partitions removes the shields and filters from other people that workers need to concentrate. As annoying as it is to overhear everything, it is just as annoying and uncomfortable to know you are being overheard. So workers in open offices often end up saying (and hearing) a lot of nothing because they feel exposed.

How do offices balance the desire for collaboration with the need for privacy and discretion? The newest compromises slightly change office layouts, add acoustic treatments, and even swipe design ideas from restaurants. Some offices pipe in special background noises to mask sound, and some, like Autodesk and Nstar, use a "pink noise" machine which matches the frequency of human voices so that speech beyond 20 feet is unintelligible. What if -- a New York consulting firm -- mixes restaurant type booths around the perimeter of their open space office to provide a level of privacy for conversations.

Tierney cites research by Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health that found a 5 percent to 10 percent decline in performance of tasks requiring short term memory among workers who unwillingly overhear conversations.

“Noise is the most serious problem in the open plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory,” said Valtteri Hongisto, an acoustician at the Institute.

From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz [NYTimes]

Image: jlcwalker flickr

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Sun Kim

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Sun Joo Kim is an architect and creative consultant based in Boston. Her projects include design and master planning of museums, public institutions, hospitals, and university buildings across the U.S. She holds a degree from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure