Revolutionising your Office Acoustics for the Post-COVID Era

The pandemic has challenged the working world in many ways and has – perhaps permanently – altered the workplace. Modern offices must be able to support the realties of the post-pandemic space; one defined by ‘mixed working’, where office design must cater for a workforce that splits its time between the office and home working, must have a renewed and heightened focus on employee wellbeing, and that is intrinsically imbued with the technological solutions that allow for working to be done remotely.

This necessary dedication to flexibility within the office has placed significant emphasis on the importance of acoustics.

Through the pandemic, while working from home was the norm, distractions in noisy homes abounded, acoustic privacy was a central concern, and internet connection often affected audio quality.

Moving back into the office, workers are more acoustically aware than ever. With many companies now offering large degrees of flexibility to allow employees to work from home at points during the week, and with other businesses imposing staggered work schedules regulating onsite headcount to enable social distancing, offices will notice a significant lack of acoustic consistency.

Focus pods at Charles River Associates

The reduced office occupancy will only exacerbate issues of noise distractions, speech privacy, and general employee acoustic comfort.

Offices with cubicle layouts might attempt to rectify the problem by installing partitions between staff members; these are generally solid surfaces, easy to disinfect. However, they are also acoustically reflective, altering the overall sonic environment within the office and making speech privacy and noise distractions even more of an issue.

As suggested by Architect Magazine, “rather than treating acoustics as an afterthought by deploying mass-produced, sound-absorbing products, architects and designers will need to approach sound control as a multidimensional, space-shaping opportunity.”

Clearly, then, there is a pressing need for employers to take seriously the importance of acoustics in the post-pandemic workspace. The general benefits of good office acoustics are well documented; a recent survey indicated that noise negatively impacts around 69% of the global workforce. In open-plan offices, where the potential for sonic distraction is higher, a survey by Canada Life suggested that workers took 70% more sick days than workers in traditional, cubicle-based offices.

Sonic solutions have always been important, but in the current COVID moment, they are crucial.

Auditorium at Harman

Tackling the Sonic Problem

Approaching the problem of office acoustics requires a radical re-think in the way that acoustics have hitherto been factored into the design process.

Building scientists at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy have suggested that noise and acoustics are the last considerations in designing interior spaces. Designers generally opt for commercial sound-absorbing products, placing them throughout office spaces with inadequate integration.

In designing new office spaces, employers must integrate acoustics into the heart of the design process. As Andrea Giglio writes in the article “Performance-Based Design Approach for Tailored Acoustic Surfaces”, “Nowadays, a new awareness on the topic of architectural acoustics design has pushed towards finding new integrated methodologies able to deliver tailored solutions for the design with sound, which embed performance criteria early in the design phase by means of simulation and computational techniques.”

The article goes on to describe a particularly innovative acoustic design solution in the development of EcoAcustica, a sonic research project that aimed to create an environment with adaptable acoustic controls all made from sustainable materials.

The space used composite panels to create highly attuned surfaces for acoustics. Borrowing design elements from acoustic environments in theatres and performance spaces, the team created a triangulated ceiling system, where smooth, sound-reflective plywood surfaces and absorptive corkboard surfaces alternated. Tests showed that the novel ceiling design functioned more effectively than an average dropped acoustic ceiling, and the project represents an innovative design solution where the acoustic properties of the space stand firmly at the forefront.

Even more innovative is the Köral System designed by TakahashiLim A+D. Köral is a free-standing assemblage inspired by coral reefs; it is composed of hexagonal, interconnected plastic composite modules filled with Earthwool and joined by 3D-printed connectors. The assembly functions as a modular, flexible, freestanding sonic isolation zone, able to expand and contract as needed, intricately designed to create folds for maximising sound absorption.

On a more readily pragmatic level, the deft integration of sound masking at specific frequencies can be instrumental for imbuing your office with a soundscape that reduces noise distraction and creates a general ambience that produces marked increases in comfort levels for employees. Sound masking solutions perhaps lack the innovative flair of the truly unique design decisions that could characterise the acoustic spaces of modern and future offices, but as a short-term solution in returning to the office, they are certainly much more tenable than sound absorption products that create a sonically inconsistent environment.

Soundproof phone booths at Mitie

An Acoustic Future

The future of office design will be characterized by a willingness to adapt or altogether dispose of traditional design principles that have not placed flexibility at the forefront. The pandemic has shed significant light on the need for businesses to create spaces that truly cater to the employee, offering a space where all needs can be met.

Central to this is acoustic design. Sound has long been a studied factor in productivity and business success, but it is often overlooked in the actual design phase. This can no longer be afforded. Employers must look towards a future where acoustic solutions are fundamental to the growth and health of their businesses, through innovative, integrated, flexible solutions.

Read out more about our recent blog How To Improve Employee Engagement Through Office Design