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Improving Workplace Productivity in the Changing Office with Workplace Acoustics

The workplace is changing in exciting and dramatic ways, but some of the same problems that have always plagued employers continue to persist. Improving workplace productivity may in fact be harder today than ever before.

Technology has fueled a rapid re-thinking of how work is done and where work is done. Some of the results are that private offices are disappearing, workstations are shrinking, collaborative areas are multiplying and unassigned drop-in space is growing.

Despite all of these changes, the workplace still needs to provide space for thoughtful concentration.

One of the challenges in managing this change is the employee’s perception that they are losing their ability to have privacy. Managers coming out of offices into open workstations and employees that are accustomed to traditional panel systems will be anxious about moving into a whole new “world of open”.

This change is manageable. By making a few key design decisions, even the most open of spaces can provide a high performing acoustical environment. This should, in turn, help with improving workplace productivity.

Privacy, Focus, and Improving Workplace Productivity

First, understanding how privacy can be measured will help establish a base line. The Privacy Index (PI) measures how much of a conversation can be understood from point A to point B.

Confidential privacy is defined as a PI of 95 or higher. This equates to understanding 5 words or less out of 100. Confidential privacy is required in offices where the most sensitive information is discussed, like HR officers, Physicians or Attorneys.

For most workers, a PI of 80 will provide for a very effective workplace. When we understand 20% or less of a conversation, we are not drawn to pay attention. That’s a terrible environment for improving workplace productivity. A PI of 80 is defined as the threshold of normal privacy.

With a PI of 80 as our goal, let’s look at how most typical corporate office space performs. Using typical construction standards and furniture configurations, most private offices will have a PI in the high 60’s to low 80’s. Most open workstations with panel heights above 54” will have a PI in the low 40’s. It will naturally be harder to maintain productivity in the workplace under those conditions.

Poor acoustical privacy is the default standard. We can now make a good case that a new more open environment designed using proven acoustical practices to provide privacy will greatly out-perform the status quo.

On a recent project, we assisted a client moving from 9’ x 9’ workstations with 66” high acoustical panels to an open bench collaborative configuration. In the old space, conversations were easily overheard from several cubes away. Distraction was a way of life. The panels provided a visual screen but little acoustical improvement.

improving workplace productivity
In the new environment, sound masking was included in the build-out. This allows employees sitting in close proximity to converse freely. However, their conversations are not distracting to neighboring groups.

In preparation for the move to the new workspace, we assisted the change management team with an educational presentation to their Team Leaders. We then recorded the program and posted it on the internal change management website for all employees to see.

By helping the future occupants of the space to understand the principals of acoustical privacy, their anxiety levels were reduced prior to the move. But more importantly, their expectations were pleasantly met on move-in day.

The project design team made other great decisions on acoustical improvements. Acoustical panels were placed strategically on walls to reduce reflecting sound and a high performance acoustical ceiling tile was installed.

These decisions, along with the sound masking system, provide an environment that reduces distractions, allows concentration and improves morale. In the previous space with high panels and no sound masking, conversations could be easily understood from distances of 35 – 50 feet. In the new workplace, conversations are unintelligible from distances greater than 10 – 15 feet. All in all, a great example of how a change in workplace acoustics can contribute to improving workplace productivity.

With the success of this project, sound masking was later added to the HR and recruiting offices in another building. Without any other changes to the physical space, privacy was increased to a level that gave recruiters the ability to talk to candidates without distraction from surrounding business.

Sound masking is a simple concept. Most offices have very low background sound levels. As a result, conversations may be heard at great distance. Sound masking introduces a soft background sound into the space. Most people describe it as sound like soft rushing air. As the sound level comes up, conversations at distance become “blurry” as our ear looses track of the words. With precise computer tuning, a soft sound can be very effective at increasing privacy.

Another byproduct of this method is that with the improved privacy provided from sound masking, fewer and less expensive building materials may be used on new projects. In existing space, improvements may be achieved without expensive construction. This leads to more sustainable facilities at a lower price.

There is an easy to follow road map to achieve a high performing acoustical environment. When all of the pieces fit together, improvements in privacy, productivity, sustainability and worker satisfaction can all be achieved while reducing costs.

– Steve Johnson,
Principal, ADI Workplace Acoustics

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