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Is Your New Office Too Loud? 

by David Smith

 Recent years have proven design trends that are shifting the spaces we work within to be more collaborative. As real estate costs rise, tenants, facility managers, and building owners look to maximize the utilization of their space. Similar to the retail floor, the discussion is about cost per square foot but instead of shelf space the focus is per employee. In order to achieve the maximum utilization objective, architectural planning and design has shifted to create areas where collaborative and individual work environments can coexist. 

Furthermore, sustainability is firmly anchored in the thought process of space planning and design. Consideration for a “greener” environment extends beyond managing energy costs into the world of materials such as reclaimed woods, recycled metals and the use of more glass for daylighting. 

The Noise Factor

 With the reduction of private work spaces and the introduction of more collaborative environments, facilities have seen a rise in the density of people in the workplace. Purposefully there are more group engagements in the office today. These group interactions are believed to be more productive resulting in improved creative solution development. But they also create more noise. With more dialogue more often in an open environment comes more distraction for those that are attempting individual, “heads down” work. 

Coupled with the fact that less absorptive materials such as fabric partitions, ceiling tile and even carpet is being utilized in today’s designs, the noise factor grows exponentially. These collaborative designs are eliminating the need for cubicles and are moving to a “desking” or “benching” scene. Again, making the work environment loud, disruptive and unproductive – the opposite of what the architect and facility management intended. 

There are three primary, industry recognized methods of controlling sound. They are known as the ABCs of sound control. “A” is to absorb. Speech travels in a wave which looks for the path of least resistance. Materials such as fabric panels, acoustical ceiling tile, and carpet absorb that sound wave and help to minimize the amount of reverberation back into the space. The second method, or “B”, is to block. Blocking sound is typically accomplished by building walls or harnessing hard surfaces to bounce the noise back into the space. However, costs are contained by not building walls from the floor to the deck above but rather only to the ceiling height. The last method is to cover, “C.” Sound masking is a way to introduce noise into the space and gently cover the indirect speech of those around the employee. Sound masking raises the ambient background sound and masks, or covers, unwanted office noise. 

With the elimination of absorptive materials “A” – and in fact the introduction of harder materials, and the long-accepted practice of minimizing costs through material reduction and wall construction which reduces the use of managing sound through blocking, or “B”, “C” becomes one of the remaining solutions. There is a need for creating UnIntelligibility within the workplace in order to minimize the distraction and allow collaborative and individual work to coexist. This can be accomplished with a properly tuned sound masking system which will deliver speech privacy – or the unintelligibility that the facility is looking for. The cautionary note is that a sound masking system must also be comfortable to allow a productive space the employee wants to work within. Discomfort forces employees to change where they work in order to still deliver on the expectations of management. 


David Smith (dsmith@lencore.com) is the Executive Director of Channel and Business Strategy at Lencore (www.lencore.com). Lencore is the leader in sound masking, paging, audio and mass notification solutions with products manufactured in the USA. David has presented at numerous events including IFMA’s WorldWorkplace, NFMT, InfoComm and Bicsi. Feel free to reach out to David with any questions pertaining to noise concerns or communications relating to mass notification