Acoustics in open-plan offices
This article will help you learn:
What are the acceptable levels of noise in office areas?
How does noise influence office workers?
Why an employer should protect employees from harmful noise?
What steps should be taken to create an acoustically comfortable office space?
Work in open-plan office environment has plenty of benefits; among others, it fosters quick information flow between employees, facilitates creative exchange of ideas and supports cooperation between teams. However, the more people working in one open office space, the bigger the noise. The following sounds may be disruptive during work in an open-plan office space:
- phone conversations held simultaneously by a number of employees
- sounds of working office equipment, such as a printer, scanner, fax
- uniform hum from mechanical rooms
- loud operation of ventilation and AC system
- outdoor noise generated by traffic
The above examples are not a definitive list. Depending on specificity and company profile it may be different for every open-plan office space. It is indisputable, however, that noise is the most frequently occurring harmful factor in office work.
So what are acceptable noise levels in an open-plan office? How does excessive noise affect employees, the effectiveness of tasks they undertake and work motivation?
Acceptable noise levels in offices
Acceptable, balanced level of noises in office spaces are set forth in the following standards: PN-N-01307:1994 oraz PN-87/B-02151/02. Maximum permissible noise levels in spaces intended for office work have been set at the level of:
35 dB - in spaces designated for office work requiring intense concentration
40 dB - in office spaces designated for conceptual work
55 dB - in administrative spaces
65 dB - in secretary's offices and customer service offices
The employer is obliged to provide working conditions where permissible levels are not exceeded and to protect employees against the risks associated with excessive exposure to noise through:
- the implementation of noise-reducing technological processes
- the use of machinery and other technical equipment emitting the lowest possible noise
- the implementation of solutions decreasing the level of noise during work
Moreover, pregnant women are forbidden to work in an environment with occupational noise exposure level exceeding 65 dB in relation to average weekly working time.
The influence of noise on office workers
Noise is one of harmful and inconvenient factors in office work, with particular emphasis on workstations where conceptual work is carried out or where intense employee concentration is required. The dominant impact of noise on office workers' bodies encompasses its burdensome effect that occurs even when auditory threshold for distracting sound is just slightly exceeded.
The definition of burdensomeness is the feeling of discomfort and dissatisfaction caused by noise which, in employee's opinion, has negative influence on them. Excessive, yet short exposure to burdensome sounds may be harmful for health and lead to fatigue, discomfort, drowsiness and balance disorders. As a result, the employee's performance deteriorates and work motivation decreases.
Major health problems occur with long-term exposure to noise and may cause hearing and sight damage, reduced physical performance or even changes in functioning of the gastrointestinal or nervous system.
However, there are numerous methods of reducing adverse, burdensome or harmful noises, and protecting the employees from excessive noise in an open-plan office space.
Benefits of balanced acoustics in the office space
In offices where due care was taken to ensure a balanced noise level, a range of positive changes among employee was noticed, such as:
- better well-being
- increased work satisfaction
- easier communication between employees
- enhanced concentration and performance
- decreased stress level
- decreased blood pressure and pulse
Improve acoustic comfort in your office in 5 steps!
STEP 1: Zoning
At the stage of planning the functional layout of the open-plan office, an architect should designate numerous separate zones intended for handling various office tasks. Thanks to zoning, the employees are not handling the tasks entrusted to them in one open space, thus generating burdensome noise; they move around the planned zones. Moreover, if they are designed to be made of soundproof materials, the zones create an acoustically comfortable office.
Examples of zones that improve the acoustic comfort in the office once implemented in the open-plan environment:
- creative space fostering brainstorms
- rooms intended for business meetings in small groups
- chillout zone enabling unwinding and relaxing, as well as informal meetings
- phone conversation zone
- quiet zone
STEP 2: Soundproofing
For an architect, a perfectly developed acoustic environment in the open-plan office space is quite a challenge. The designed office space has to encompass not only basic functions, but also provide protection against excessive and harmful noise with soundproofing. Soundproofing an open-plan office space may be achieved by the use of interior design elements that improve acoustic comfort, such as:
- acoustic lamps
- acoustic division walls
- acoustic ceilings
- acoustic panels (wall-mounted, desk-mounted)
STEP 3: Activity-based office
Flexibly configured office whose zones and functions may be dynamically modified according to employees' current needs and tasks is a method of designing an open-plan office that is currently gaining popularity among architects. An office based on the concept of an elastic and dynamic workspace allows to increase productivity and improve motivation to complete entrusted tasks.
STEP 4: Meeting room acoustics
Meeting rooms, particularly those designed for meetings of large groups of people, require appropriately planned soundproofing. During a business meeting where parties engage in trade negotiations, a meeting room has to be prepared in such a way, as to guarantee very good acoustics, effortless speech comprehension and seamless communication. On another hand, materials and elements used for meeting room construction have to provide appropriate sound isolation and full discretion during confidential meetings.
STEP 5: Office greenery
Over the last few years, this trend has grown in popularity. By introducing greenery into an open-plan office, we gain not only an attractive appearance of a place where it's pleasant to work, but we're also creating a place with balanced noise levels. "Biophilic design" is an extension of office designing with greenery in mind. It revolved around creating office concepts that focus on the natural world, contributing to human health and productivity.