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Acoustics in the Open Office

     Office buildings have become noisier and noisier in the past decade. Open plan offices have become the norm in most industries, as they require lower start-up costs, provide greater flexibility, and encourage communication and collaboration. An estimated 70 percent of office workers perform their work in cubicles or other open work areas. Back in 1995 a typical workstation was 10′ X 10′. Today’s workstations average 6′ X 8′ or 6′ X 6′.

     Noise has always been present in the workplace, but changes in the tasks of today’s employees and how they work make noise more of a factor than in times past. The use of mobile phones and speaker phones has increased dramatically. Workers are spending more of their time working in teams or informal groups with other workers, often in close proximity to coworkers engaged in “heads down” work. Phones, PDAs, pagers and other electronic devices that have electronic ring tones and other audio alerts have become common workplace tools. Wi-fi and other wireless technologies have made it possible for employees to work in nearly any location in a building. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment has become so quiet that it no longer provides enough white noise to adequately mask office conversation.

     The acoustic role of systems furniture in open plan offices is to prevent sound generated within one cubicle from intruding into adjacent cubicles by blocking and/or absorbing it. The workspace divider panel must contain sound from going over, through or around each furniture divider panel, and it should also absorb sound within the workstation. Panels 60” high or higher are most effective in blocking sound. Panel heights of 48” or lower are entirely ineffective in blocking conversational noise. The sound travels right over the top of the panels into the adjoining cubicles. Studies show that work productivity is lessened when panels are below a height of 60”. The Steelcase panels used by New Life Office have a favorable STC (Sound Transmission Class, is a measure of the amount of sound reduced as it passes through a particular material in laboratory tests).

     Certain furniture configurations also contribute to the acoustical impact of systems furniture in open plan settings. For example,when there is an open visual path between workers, sound can more easily pass along the same path and disrupt both. A workstation layout that provides maximum enclosure and blocks, as much as possible, direct pathways for sound transmission will help achieve a “non-intrusive” level of privacy.  

     Finally, systems furniture works with other acoustical elements to ensure privacy and promote productivity. These features must be considered in relation to ceiling design/performance, floor covering materials, and the use of appropriate sound masking technology and equipment.