About Sound and the Office

Flexible workplaces and open-plan offices or combinations thereof seem to be the future. Such a solution involves an office environment in which specific demands are to be placed on acoustics. In this kind of office environment, acoustics greatly influence the office worker's psychological and physical well being. People are easily distracted by voices and background noises. They affect our power of concentration and thus our attention to the task we are expected to perform.
Today, companies have very clear requirements from their office space. It has to inspire and support new ways of working. A well-planned office is always based around the business and the staff. As flexibility is the maxim in today’s organisations, each member of staff must have access to a work environment suitable for every situation and should be able to choose where he or she will work in relation to the current task.
In particular "brainwork" benefits from a good sound environment. Studies show that noise has an effect on formation of concepts, the speed of reading and the memory. Brainwork is what takes place in the office at present: analysing, establishing relationships and being creative. There of the importance of a good sound environment.
The first step in such restructuring should be mapping out the requirements and expectations that an organisation has with regard to its work environment. The management then needs to set out and illustrate the planned change well before building commences.
The aim of the various aspects of change should be summarised in one concept that also describes tangible choices of design, materials and technology. In this way everyone involved can become familiar with the new work environment before anyone moves in.
A company usually plans changes to its premises owing to expansion or changes in its operation. It may be a question of reacting to the market, seeking to strengthen the company culture or highlighting new working patterns, which is why an office project must take a holistic approach. The goal is to place a long-term aim into physical form – clearly a management issue.
Through office design, furnishings and general quality allow the company to express the values it represents. The office becomes one of many media that promotes corporate identity. In major companies this medium is often international, with offices worldwide reflecting the same architectural concept. 
An office is a complex unit, comprising many different areas, each with its own requirements and acoustic conditions. Whatever the area’s intended activity, the challenge is to ensure that disturbance is avoided and comfort provided.
The individual reaction to sound is determined by a number of factors; the meaning of the sound determines how we experience it. It also turns out that sound will be accepted more easily if it can be influenced for instance, by turning off an appliance.
Also, research shows that staff divide their time evenly between communication, concentration and administration, meaning that all tasks of various natures are carried out between periods of communication and concentration. A well-planned office offers areas for both these activities in equally carefully designed environments.
Communication is basically about hearing and being heard. Good speech intelligibility is fundamental, be it informal conversations at your desk, or formal meetings with several people in a conference room. Speech should not be masked by background noises, such as ventilation systems or other peoples' conversations.
Low noise levels and low sound propagation is achieved by ensuring short reverberation times, which requires optimum sound absorption in the room.
Concentration requires a minimum of disturbing noise. Therefore, it is necessary to plan for good speech differentiation for those in an office, quiet room or break area. The attention level required for the task in hand must not be interrupted by conversations on the other side of the room or in a room next door. Research shows that the more complex the task, the higher the level of concentration required - and the more easily people are disturbed by unwanted noise, particularly other peoples' conversations.
In this case, the aim is to achieve a low noise level and short sound propagation within the area in which the conversation is taking place, as well as a short reverberation time.
Concentration or communication? – In fact they are opposites. In the office it has to be possible to carry out both activities at the same time.
Research shows that other peoples' voices are the main threat to a person’s concentration, therefore, separate acoustic solutions will apply to open plan and cellular offices.
Consequently when planning an office, a wide variety of conditions need to be addressed in order to achieve a good acoustic environment.
A highly efficient acoustic ceiling absorbs most sound waves that hit the ceiling, resulting in a reduced reverberation time, which in turn lowers the general noise level in the room and reduces the propagation of airborne sound.
The usual approach is to examine the relationship between voice and noise (background noise). The voice should be approximately 15 dB above noise in order to be fully understood. Reducing background noise removes the need to raise your voice to be heard. This subsequently lowers the general noise level and combats the risk of disturbing other conversations in the surrounding area.
A low level of general noise, combined with reduced sound propagation makes it possible to control the balance between speech intelligibility and the required privacy.
The main duty of an acoustic ceiling is to shorten the reverberation time. Above that, an acoustic ceiling has to meet several requirements. Following functional properties should then be considered when choosing an acoustic ceiling.

Offices - room by room

Ecophon official reference: office, quiet zone. Project: Connecta AB, Stockholm, Sweden. Architect: FFNS Arkitekter AB. Photo: Åke E:son Lindman. System: Focus E.

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