Over the years, the standard workplace environment has undergone some fairly considerable changes, with real emphasis being placed upon facilitating communication and team work within many companies. Consequently, an open plan working environment has become the industry standard (as of 2004 roughly 73 percent of 100 million office workers in the US utilized an open plan layout according to David M. Sykes PhD) and while this has helped to achieve the aforementioned goals, it has created a number of other issues that can actually harm a workforce’s performance, with one of the main detrimental impacts being a lack of acoustical comfort.

Acoustical Comfort and How Can It Affect the Workplace

Within any single company there can be a whole range of activities and processes that take place during the course of a standard day. Some (think about team based or discussion orientated tasks) will actually require the use of the open plan workspace that is so common nowadays, but for many other tasks that take place in a company (think private meetings or focus-intensive tasks) a quieter, more isolated environment is required. This is essentially what we’re referring to when we talk about acoustical comfort; the right sound level for the activity being undertaken.
In most environments there are three interlinked factors that can impact upon the acoustical comfort level; these are the design of the room, the people (staff) and the activity. In most cases little can be done with regards to the second and third factors (they are likely essential to the running of the business), other than perhaps implementing a strict code of ethics and ensuring all devices are well maintained and low-noise emitting models are purchased where possible. However, the design of the workplace is an element that the business owner often has total control over, and while open plan layouts are more cost effective, many studies conducted into how poor workplace acoustics negatively affect the workforce have shown that an open plan layout will likely end up costing you dearly in the end. Here are just a few of the common correlations identified between poor acoustics and workplace performance.

  • Large Amounts of Lost Time – Optimum acoustical comfort levels can ensure that you get the maximum ROI from your staff, while excess noise can cause constant distraction and hours of lost work time every single week. In 2006, Dr. Andrew J. Marsh published a research article that stated “it can take 10 – 15 seconds to refocus a person’s attention on a task once they have been momentarily distracted.” And guess what the biggest source of these “momentary distractions” is? If you said the human voice, you would be correct. Apart from the kind of noise that only industrial grade machinery or a siren could produce, the human voice is one of most distracting sounds that exists, as if we are able to comprehend the words being spoken, the mind begins to process them automatically and attention gets diverted from the task the individual is undertaking. In a baseline study (see page 7) that was conducted for the GSA Workplace 20/20 program, 60 percent of participants stated that they felt they could get a greater amount of work done if their working environment was quieter. Additionally, 56 percent stated that they felt it was very important to be able to insulate themselves from distractions, while half of the total number of participants responded stating that they felt excess noise was preventing them from performing as well in their role as they could. Lower levels of productivity from staff ultimately results in higher costs for any business.
  • Lack of Privacy -A study conducted by the Centre for the Built Environment (CBE) at UC Berkeley in 2003 found poor quality workplace acoustics to be the leading source of dissatisfaction among office staff and that a lack of speech privacy was of particular concern for staff members. By speech privacy, we are referring to the ability to have a conversation without being overheard by other employees, and the CBE study found that 72 percent of participants in the survey weren’t satisfied with the level of speech privacy within their working environment. Other studies have reported figures as high as 80 percent of participants claiming a lack of speech privacy to be a serious issue for them at work (Jensen, Arens, & Zagreus, 2005). Just why is speech privacy so important? Well, besides drastically increasing the potential for distraction and the almost certain subsequent lower activity levels that would result from that scenario, according to Jennifer Stoddart, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, “a lack of privacy can have a profound effect on employees’ sense of dignity, their sense of freedom and their sense of autonomy.” Simply put, your staff feeling as though they are constantly under surveillance is most probably not the best way to build a positive working environment. Additionally, some conversations between employees are likely to contain sensitive information that could have a significant negative impact if such information became common knowledge. In a paper that he wrote in 2004, David M. Sykes, PhD, analyzed research that was done to test the effects of conversational noise on office staff. During testing it was found that the workers’ ability to focus on their work activities improved by 48 percent if conversational noise was reduced and there was also a 10 percent improvement in the performance of tasks that were memory based or tasks that required a high degree of accuracy.
  • Employee Welfare Suffers – Any business owner has a duty to safeguard the welfare of staff members, which is why you might be interested to know that uncomfortable workplace acoustics can have a major impact upon the health and wellbeing of employees. In an article published by Lorraine E. Maxwell of Cornell University entitled “Noise in the Office Workplace” she points out that “studies have shown that certain levels of noise can incapacitate a person’s ability to concentrate on a particular task, thereby leading to a stress response. Increased stress leads to the release of certain chemicals, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are found in both blood and urine.” The effects of constant exposure to a stress-inducing environment and the bodily responses that go with it can have a profound effect on a person’s general health, causing physical, mental and behavioural deficiencies that can seriously impact upon their quality of life. In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a survey that was designed to help us learn more about stress in people’s lives. Of the 1,848 people that participated, 75 percent reported experiencing symptoms commonly associated with stress as a direct result of their job and 66 percent said that their job was the main cause of stress in their lives. When this is combined with the fact that many employees consider a lack of acoustical comfort to be one of the biggest stressors in their working environment (see the CBE study mentioned earlier), it becomes clear that getting the design and acoustics of an office space right has a far greater impact than simply increasing productivity.

Moveable Walls: The Most Effective Way of Improving Acoustical Comfort

In the past, the only viable solution in terms of turning an open plan office area into one that boasts favourable acoustical conditions would have been to alter its layout using traditional drywall construction. Why? Well, until recently movable walls and modular wall systems were not able to block the transmission of sound very effectively, certainly not to the same degree as drywall, which is why for a long time, despite their many other benefits, moveable walls were often overlooked by business owners that wanted to modify and optimise their workspaces.
The Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating that a wall is given reflects its ability to resist the transmission of sound and therefore its capacity to create a working environment with satisfactory acoustical comfort for the staff. If this is achieved, this goes a long way to negating many of the negative results that we discussed earlier in the article, although there are other factors in the workplace that can contribute to these problems also, such as poor lighting for example. The standard conventional drywall typically has an STC rating of between 36 and 42. This means that it successfully blocks out 36 to 42 percent of the total number of decibels of any sound that is transmitted in the area. How does this compare to today’s demountable wall systems? Many of these systems now have an STC rating of between 44 and 48, far exceeding the performance of standard drywall, and they can be further customized to improve this performance even more. What does this mean in terms of acoustical comfort?

  • Walls with an STC rating of 40 are able to offer a good level of speech privacy, although louder conversations may still be heard through the wall.
  • Once an STC rating of 42 is achieved, you will no longer be able to decipher the words spoken during loud conversations; only a murmur will be noted.
  • Any wall that is awarded an STC rating of 45 is able to block out loud speech altogether and 90 percent of individuals will not be distracted.
  • An STC rating of 50 means that the wall can block out extremely loud sounds and 99 percent of employees will be satisfied with the acoustics in their workplace.

How IMT Moveable Walls Are Optimized to Ensure Acoustical Comfort

At IMT we are committed to providing all of our clients with modular wall systems that not only offer a convenient way in which to modify office space, but one that improves the level of acoustical comfort in the area. When designing our moveable walls, we use three concepts to improve their ability to block sound, which are:

  • Add Mass to the Walls – Two of the biggest factors that can increase a moveable wall’s ability to block out sound are thickness and mass. When the thickness and mass of a wall is doubled, the wall is able to block out an additional 5 db. For this reason, as standard we utilize 2 layers of 5/8″ MDF to construct our moveable walls, which does a much better job than the gypsum that is commonly used in drywall construction does.
  • Integrating or Expanding Air Space – The performance of moveable architectural partitions can also be improved by either integrating an airspace into the partition if one doesn’t already exist or expanding an existing small airspace. Just 1 1/2″ will improve the wall’s performance by 3 dB, while 3″ and 6″ airspaces within the wall will improve performance by 6 dB and 8 dB respectively. At IMT, our standard modular wall systems utilize a 2.75″ airspace in their design (larger than in many other systems) and this can be customized according to your requirements.
  • Adding Absorptive Material – Another way in which the STC rating of moveable walls can be improved and another method that we use at IMT, is to add an absorptive material inside a partition’s airspace. This can improve performance by 4-6 dB and in all of our solid wall cavities we integrate a 1″ batt.

The importance of ensuring acoustical comfort in any business space is obvious, but it’s often a consideration that isn’t given the attention that it deserves. Modular wall systems, such as the ones that IMT provides are an effective way, both in terms of installation time and cost, of lessening conversational noise in the workplace and increasing speech privacy, which are both characteristics that employees frequently express as desirable in employee satisfaction surveys.

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