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Are Open Office Environments Hurting Productivity?

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With proper design and acoustics, open work spaces can deliver a collaborative and efficient workplace.

Open offices have become the trend for an increasing number of companies as the traditional cubicle fell out of favour. Aside from saving space, open workspaces were meant to be more collaborative. When Google and Facebook joined the open office movement, many other companies wondered if they should follow suit.

While open concept may look inviting, an office can be a noisy place. From conversations to typing to telephones ringing, noise is everywhere. It can be downright disruptive and impossible to concentrate. In fact, noise is one of the biggest drains on productivity in an open office and can ultimately impact a company's bottom line. A 2005 report from Basex Research found that employees lose an average of 2.1 hours a day to interruptions, costing the U.S. economy upwards of $588 billion per year.

Add in concerns over privacy and the open concept office may lose some of its appeal. There are some conversations that cannot be overheard such as HR decisions, client issues or supplier challenges. While the idea of an open space has its advantages, there are times where privacy trumps design. With all these concerns, you may be wondering, did Google, Facebook and all the other companies that opted for open offices get it wrong? Not at all. If noise is a major concern in open offices, the mistake lies in the design, not in the concept.

Open offices create a more collaborative atmosphere because employees can interact more easily. However, there should be spaces that allow employees to be focused and others for collaboration. Open office frustration tends to happen when the spaces are not used properly.

To keep noise in check, acoustics should not be an afterthought in the design process. It is very hard to fix noise issues once an office space is finished. There are five key elements to ensure noise doesn't wreck your open office:

  1. Balance open and closed spaces: A well-designed open office has primary open working areas as well as breakout rooms, meeting rooms, collaboration spaces and informal gathering spaces designed to minimize the noise impact. Companies like Google have achieved a balance of noise reduction between open and closed spaces to ensure fun and collaborative spaces, but also secluded areas for work that requires concentration.
  2. Incorporate acoustic absorption: Exposed concrete walls, higher ceilings, and glass for conference room doors are trendy but the accompanying hard surfaces can create acoustical issues. You can still have a "cool" looking space and control noise. Acoustic ceiling tiles help with acoustic absorption while other options could be acoustic spray, some form of acoustic panel, absorptive baffles, or acoustical treatments for the walls that can balance both acoustic and aesthetic needs. Today's options for absorptive treatments come in almost any type of surface, so many more creative options are available to designers.
  3. Ensure new furniture does not impact noise level: Many offices use 'systems furniture' such as modular partitions, packaged panels, shelves, and work surfaces for a standard office. Generally, higher partitions will provide greater privacy and reduce noise transmission because their fabric surfaces provide some acoustic absorption. You do get what you pay for with modular office partitions. These systems can often be upgraded with higher performance windows for greater privacy but the weakest links are almost always the doors. So you want to consider how these systems are being used, the expectations of the privacy offered by them and how it integrates into your overall office design.
  4. Consider sound masking: Too much quiet can also be distracting. Sound masking is a concept that says in order to provide increased privacy, artificial background noise can help reduce the intelligibility or audibility of someone else's speech. Sound masking needs to be done carefully. It should sound like static or air flow and be as hidden as possible. Using music or other types of sound as masking is not recommended as this often becomes a distraction. And there is a fine line on how much you should rely on a sound masking system - pumping in white noise at levels that are too high can just add to the noise concerns. The key here is to ensure that the sound masking system works with the existing mechanical system noise and strikes the appropriate balance.
  5. Review mechanical systems: All of your efforts to create an acoustically balanced office can be ruined by a noisy air conditioner or heating system. Incorporating adequate noise controls such as silencers or duct lining on the mechanical system to ensure that mechanical system noise is adequately controlled may be necessary. Finally, in some situations, the mechanical system itself can act as the sound masking system if properly designed.

The open environment office is here to stay but it should not be at the expense of productivity. By looking at noise control at the beginning of the design stage, you can make sure the office acoustics will deliver an interactive working environment without impacting the comfort or output of your employees.

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