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Struggling with Noise in the Office? Remember your ABCD’s!


For much of my career, lighting and heating/cooling systems have been fighting it out for #1 on the employee dissatisfaction list.  But there’s a new burr in the saddle of today’s office worker and it’s threatening to take over the top spot long dominated building systems. The issue is noise.

Noise and distraction in the workplace is nothing new but the denser and more open plans of modern offices have elevated the issue. Couple that with the blitz of interruptions from email and social media, and it’s a wonder anyone can get anything done. While distracting noise can’t be completely eliminated, you can reduce the impact on people if you remember your ABCD’s.


I admit that I love hard surfaces. Glass, metal, concrete and stone are appealing to the eye but these finishes can create echo chambers unless blended with softer surfaces like fabric and carpet. One often overlooked element is the ceiling. A high quality sound absorbing system can reduce sound by as much as 20% when compared to cheaper lay-in tiles or drywall ceilings. In addition, using a suspended light source instead of 2×4 fixtures will not only improve the lighting but will also significantly increase the surface area of the acoustical ceiling and further reduce noise.


Even in today’s wide-open floor plans there is still a place for walls. A well placed wall (or two) can shield employees from both visual and auditory distractions. I recommend demountable walls over drywall because of the increased flexibility and lower impact on the environment. In addition, demountable walls usually have an acoustical core which makes them much better at blocking noise than their gypsum board counterparts.


A sound masking system, or “white noise” is another excellent way to deal with noise in the office. It may seem counter-intuitive that adding noise would be an effective way to reduce distractions but it really does work. The reason is that most people don’t find sound to be a distraction. What bothers us is the ability to hear a conversation and make out every word. Even more bothersome is what Lauren Emberson, a PhD candidate in Psychology at Cornell, calls a “halfalogue”. These occur whenever you can overhear someone talking on the phone. According to Lauren, whether you like it or not, your brain will try to fill in the missing half.


It is common sense that the further away we are from a sound, the less we will perceive it. Scientists have calculated that the reduction is 6db each time you double your distance from the sound. For example, if you’re one meter away from someone speaking at 50db, and then move to two meters you’ll perceive the noise at 44db. Four meters will take it down to 38db and so on.  Nicholas Luzietti of VOA, Chicago told us they used to place collaborative spaces within neighborhoods because they assumed that the participants would all be from desks in the immediate vicinity. But as teams became more diverse they changed the strategy and now locate group spaces down the hall from focused-work zones.

Strategies for noise reduction work best when they are coupled. For example, you won’t see much benefit from your sound masking system unless you’ve also employed soft surfaces, blocked noise where possible and separated noisy functions from quiet ones. A well thought-out approach to creating environments that control noise won’t eliminate the problem but it will go a long way toward making people happier and more productive. Now if I could just adjust the thermostat — it’s freezing in here!

| By Michael Fazio

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“A mega-trend is sharing instead of ownership of workspaces. We can either all ride in coach or we can share a private jet.”

Chris Blackadder
Principal, Woods Bagot