Sound can have positive or negative effects on human performance. Excessive noise or particular kinds of unwanted sound (such as background conversations, alarms, ringing unanswered telephones, and so on) can be detrimental to individual performance. The nature of the task in which people are engaged will be a factor generally in terms of preferred sound levels, but in spite of statistically predictable decrements in task performance with certain types and levels of noise, the variability between people in their affective response to noise should not be underestimated.

Put simply, some people will be more adversely affected than others by noise. This suggests that the ideal working environment will allow people either to control the acoustic environment locally--perhaps using mobile screens, noise-cancelling headsets, or sound-masking technology—or to move their activity to acoustically pre-configured zones. The acoustic profiles of these work zones may be created by the judicious use of acoustic ceiling tiles, ceiling islands, wall cladding systems, screens, cupboards, floor coverings and soft fabrics.

What is “noise” to one person may be “task” to another. Work conversations, whether face to face or via a telephone, are tasks that often give rise to noise complaints by those who overhear them. Tacit or explicit agreements between users of a space will allow auditory rules to be established and amended in line with emerging technologies. For example, telephone conferencing systems can generate sound levels of up to 90dB(A), which may be intrusive to people working nearby—if such high sound levels are unnecessary, users simply need to reduce the volume of the unit.

Privacy technologies such as passive sound-attenuating screens, booths, pods, or active sound masking systems might be used to limit the transmission of speech beyond the space of the people speaking. Ideally, these technologies will enable the expansion or contraction of the privacy boundary to meet the needs of single (e.g. telephone) or group (e.g. meeting) conversations.

Electronic sound masking (also known as sound conditioning) is a means of providing confidentiality within work areas by raising the “noise floor.” Sound masking systems are widely installed in offices in the USA. Unlike constant frequency “pink noise” and “white noise” generators, both of which may be readily negated by the brain’s auditory filter, sound masking systems deploy random sound that is restricted to the human auditory frequency range. To people beyond the immediate conversation zone, speech within that zone is rendered inaudible or unintelligible.

In social settings, or where collaborative discussions (e.g., brain-storming) are taking place, sound levels may be obtrusive to people working nearby. The provision of reconfigurable meeting and socialising spaces will be helpful. This might include the capability of screening off the meeting or socialising areas, and by making use of localised sound-masking technologies.

The choice of furnishings, fabrics and finishes should take the dynamic acoustic environment into account when designing the workplace. This approach builds on the principle of task-related work settings, acknowledging that only a percentage of ‘work’ task during the day necessitate a formal desk. Rather than adding ever-more acoustic solutions in and around the desk, to enable the desk to be increasingly functional, the alternative concept of a menu of work-settings which would be tailored to the needs of concentrative, collaborate and group working would be a better fit for the innovative organisation.

This article is extracted from our white paper ‘Strangers in the Office. You can download the full report here.