SOUND MATTERS IN THE WORKPLACE: The Open Office Meets Acoustical Paradise

— by Nick Shirley, Perry Artese, and Greg Coudriet

For many companies, one of the biggest surprises from the great work-from-home experiment is that…it actually works. Employees can be productive and effective when they’re not in the office. Our group at NV5 was ahead of this curve in some respects, as the bulk of our team has been remote for years. At the same time, there are obvious benefits to seeing coworkers and collaborating in person. So, what is the right balance between office and home office? What steps will help keep employees happy and productive? While we can’t solve all your internal policy debates, we can help address the acoustic and AV challenges your office is likely facing. As workers split their time between home and office, several issues have become starkly apparent.

Acoustic Paradise

Many employees have gotten used to their home office setup. They’ve bought new furniture, larger monitors, and more comfortable chairs. They’ve also enjoyed the many perks of a closed-door office: privacy for important conversations, the ability to concentrate on critical tasks, and fewer disruptions throughout the day. Granted, not everyone has a dedicated workspace at home (or a lockable door to escape their children). But they still have flexibility in where they choose to set up shop and more control over their own acoustic environment. After working in this “acoustic paradise,” it can be hard to go back to the loud cubicles and cramped workstations in the office.

The Open Office

Open offices have never been great for privacy and concentration. This is not a new revelation, as the pros and cons have been thoroughly debated for years. Yet the overall trend pre-pandemic was to pack more employees into smaller and smaller areas. This is best embodied by the rise of “benching,” with workers lined up next to each other at long tables. It’s true that some employees can thrive in the lively coffee-house atmosphere this creates. But the flip side is that non-stop distractions make it hard to complete important tasks. Many types of office work require deep concentration, which is severely hampered by a noisy environment. Gensler has conducted extensive research on this topic, finding that employees thrive when they are able to choose the environment that best suits their current task: social areas for collaborative activities and focus areas for individual work. A flexible office arrangement can offer the best of both worlds.

Calls, Calls, Calls

One of the newest challenges in office design is the ubiquity of web meetings. Seemingly every meeting now takes place on Teams or Zoom. Whether you appreciate the flexibility these tools provide or regret the lack of in-person connection, the web meeting shows no signs of disappearing.

In the before-times, every office had that one person. You know the one: loud voice, always on the phone, testing the patience of their neighbors. Unfortunately, everyone has now become that person. With calendars full of web meetings and not enough conference rooms to go around, employees have little choice but to call in from their desks. Voices are raised to hear themselves over their neighbors, in turn causing their neighbors to talk louder. (This unpleasant spiral, known as the Lombard effect, happens frequently in restaurants everywhere.) As a result, the once-tolerable open office now sounds like a dive bar on karaoke night.

Taken together, these factors have added up to greater dissatisfaction with office life. Employee turnover is high, with burnout and a desire for flexibility topping the list of complaints. Clearly, employee expectations of their workplace have changed. What can architects do to help address this?

Back to Basics

In the past, acoustical solutions to open offices could be an afterthought. If architects included one or two basic strategies in their design, the result would generally be acceptable to most users. Now that the needs of employees have changed, designers should be using every tool in the toolbox to optimize the acoustic environment.


Sound absorptive finishes are critical to controlling noise build-up in the office. By strategically placing acoustic materials on the ceiling and walls, it’s possible to dramatically reduce the distance that sound can spread. One way to think of this is the “distraction radius.” In a reverberant space, a loud talker may be able to annoy everyone clear across the room. With appropriate acoustic treatment, the damage can be limited to only their immediate neighbors.

This doesn’t mean that stodgy ceiling tile is required everywhere. There is a huge variety of acoustic finish products that can be pursued, ranging from eye-catching and contemporary to nearly invisible. While some sound-absorbing options do cost more than their non-acoustic counterparts, alternative and effective materials can be explored at nearly any price point.

Sound Masking

Sound masking is becoming a necessity for the modern workplace. The best systems on the market can stealthily cover up distracting speech sounds, greatly reducing the “distraction radius.” Many workers in loud environments have taken matters into their own hands, locking themselves inside noise canceling headphones all day. But while music has been shown to help with some productivity tasks, it can be disruptive for others. Furthermore, prolonged headphone use at high volumes can eventually lead to hearing loss. Providing office-wide sound masking creates a more pleasant acoustic environment and reduces how often those headphones are necessary. There are numerous systems on the market that can generate an ideal sound spectrum. However, it’s important to make sure your system is installed by an experienced manufacturer and precisely adjusted to provide privacy without calling attention to itself. Hiring an acoustical consultant (like us) to design and test these systems is always a good call, as we provide unbiased expertiseto make sure your system follows best practices.

Office Layout

There is no getting away from common sense. If someone is on the phone three feet away from you, you’re going to hear it. Trendy office furniture designs often ignore this fact or suggest half-hearted “solutions.” Unfortunately, the small and flimsy dividers offered by many manufacturers do very little to block sound.

One of the few solutions to this problem is greater distance between workers. This conversation may have become easier with a pandemic that prioritized social distancing. Square footage rent costs may be less of an economic pressure as well, with many properties sitting vacant. Regardless, it’s worth having these discussions about worker density, especially when a little extra space can provide clear benefits to wellbeing.

Thoughtful space planning can also go a long way to reduce common noise complaints. Ideally, offices should provide as many on-demand rooms as possible for phone calls and private conversations. High-noise spaces like cafeterias and collaboration zones should be kept as far as possible from quiet concentration spaces. Storage and support rooms can serve as ideal noise buffers between problematic adjacencies.

And at the End of the Day…

Most importantly, office designers should be realistic about their expectations. One thin strip of felt can’t control all the noise generated by employee benches. Plan to incorporate absorption on a significant surface area (usually the ceiling). Use sound masking systems in all open workstation areas and any enclosed offices that warrant extra privacy. Provide adequate distance between employees and strive to incorporate a variety of active and quiet space types.

And of course, you can always call us if you need any help!

Acoustical Consultant Nick Shirley INCE has a portfolio that includes sensitive office, academic, and clinical environments. Also a musician who has performed as a guitarist and drummer in many great (and some not-so-great) spaces, Nick knows firsthand the value of well-designed acoustic environments.

Senior Audiovisual Project Consultant Perry Artese CTS-D recently joined NV5. He is not only an accomplished audiovisual consultant, but also a published author, photographer, studio sound engineer, music producer, and even a professional songwriter. Yeah, Perry is particularly attuned to sound.

Principal Consultant Greg Coudriet INCE Bd. Cert, LEED AP BD+C oversees NV5’s acoustics department, and also has been known to play in a band or two.

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