Surely the panacea for efficient office working is for everyone to have their own sound-proofed, silent office.  Right?

Well, if we still lived and worked in the 1940s then this may be true.  However, times have moved on and certain key factors have changed since then, including the following:

  • Space is at a premium and cellular offices can be very space-inefficient
  • The way we work has changed.  People tend to work more in teams now, and rely on the ability to collaborate
  • Many companies have a flatter structure now, where status is not usually required to be expressed by ‘having your own office’

So, taking people out of cellular offices and putting them into open plan saves space, money and allows them to talk to each other.  But how do workers co-exist in amongst phones ringing, people talking loudly and so many other sources of distraction?  It is a big culture change, and something we are constantly helping clients adapt to.  There is so much bad press about open plan working, with sensational claims that it is ruining companies, ostracising introverts, causing employee sickness and generally leading to the downfall of civilisation!  But if that is the case, why do so many companies continue to work in this way?

The fact remains, we are social creatures.  Smart employers provide inspiring environments where their staff can thrive in a productive, collaborative environment with just the right mix of ‘buzz’ but not so much noise as to cause distraction.

The keys to successful design of open plan workplaces are as follows:

Silence is not always golden: if an office is too quiet then people will be reluctant to talk.  This therefore hampers collaboration and productivity.  A good baseline of sound is useful as it can provide an element of speech masking, optimising privacy. This sound should be at such a level (typically 43 to 48 dBA) that creates an effective ‘wash’ of anonymous sound, but is not so high that people feel the need to talk over it.  Typical sources of sound would be ventilation or a dedicated speech masking system.

  • Space planning: plan the office layout carefully.  Don’t put highly sensitive areas such as Human Resources next to social spaces such as cafes, where private conversations could be overheard.
  • Interior design: use internal finishes and furniture to control the spread of sound. Sensitively located sound absorption, coordinated with lighting and other building services, can help control sound at source, optimising conditions for speech whilst helping contain the spread to other areas
  • Behaviour: don’t expect to be able to hold loud conversations or meetings in the middle of an open plan space without disturbing colleagues.  It’s just common sense.

Open plan working can be awesome, but it needs to be done properly.  The design of the space can take it so far then etiquette/management are needed to get it across the line.  There are some activities that are simply not suited to open plan, such as formal meetings, staff appraisals, disciplinary meetings, etc. and it is important to have a variety of different spaces where all staff can work to the best of their abilities.

So, is silence golden?  I’m not sure, but it can sometimes be overrated.

By Andrew Parkin BEng(Hons) CEng FIOA FIHEEM, Acoustics Partner at Cundall

a.parkin@cundall.com @andrewjparkin