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Table with microphones inside of a recording booth

Controlling Noise in the Office

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a lot of changes in the way we go about our day-to-day lives, both expected and unexpected. As people return to the workplace, they likely expect to see changes like restrictions on common areas, workstations being spread out, or physical barriers being added to desks. For companies with open offices, plexiglass desk partitions are a simple, cleanable solution to help prevent the spread of germs without making people feel closed off or isolated. But replacing soft, absorbent surfaces with hard surfaces can come with an unintended side effect: extra noise. 

Open office environment with exposed ceiling.There are a lot of different types of desk partitions on the market, but given the needs of today’s world, plexiglass and glass partitions are best suited to helping people safely return to the office since they are easy to clean. Unfortunately, they don’t absorb noise the way that upholstered partitions do, so adding lots of these hard surfaces around the office makes it easier for sound to carry. Voices, ringing phones, and noise from HVAC systems might all become a lot more difficult for people to tune out. 

Too much noise is a very common complaint among people who work in open offices and it can be much more than a general annoyance. Noisy workplaces make it difficult for people to concentrate, making them less productive. Once a person is distracted, one study has found that it can take upwards of 15 minutes to get back on track. Another study by Steelcase and Ipsos found that the average worker loses about 86 minutes of productivity per day because of an inability to concentrate. Noise can also make people feel more stressed, leading to higher heart rates and blood pressure levels. 

When working in a noisy office, putting on some headphones to listen to music isn’t necessarily an ideal solution since it means people could miss out on important discussions happening around them. Instead, it’s best to think about adding new acoustic control solutions at the same time you install hard surfaces like plexiglass desk partitions. 

Groups of workstations in an open office with colorful acoustical tiles on the wall.

Since upholstered partitions can get touched frequently, it’s now important to look toward other acoustic control solutions that are more out of reach. Acoustic panels are one very popular option that can simply be attached to walls or ceilings, keeping them nicely out of the way, but there are plenty of other innovative solutions that are both attractive and functional.

Acoustic ceiling tiles and wall finishes are both excellent options to consider and you might be surprised by just how stylish they can be. If you prefer the look of an open ceiling, spray-on products like cellulose insulation and cementitious spray can be very effective ways to help keep the noise down. 

Groups of tables with chairs placed around them in an office meeting area with acoustical panels on the ceiling.Illustration showing ceiling-mounted acoustical panels.

A great example of a dual purpose product is the Seem 1 Acoustic Fixture by Focal Point.  This is a light fixture wrapped in a sound absorbing material that resembles felt.  There are multiple colors and features available to add some pop to an open space, but also provide necessary noise control. 

As you read about controlling noise in the workplace, you may also hear about sound masking systems. Sound masking systems are another option for dealing with noise in the office, but these function differently from things like acoustic ceiling tiles and wall coverings. While those work by absorbing noise, sound masking systems work by placing speakers around a space that play sounds at a specific frequency, distracting people from other noise in the area. So while they don’t actively reduce noise, they can still help people concentrate and add some acoustical privacy to the environment. 

Even though many acoustic control options are focused on walls and ceilings, don’t forget about your floors. Flooring materials can also play a big role in the way sound carries throughout a space. Concrete floors are a big trend right now, but carpeting does an excellent job of absorbing noise.

Private booth area in an office with frosted glass walls.Private enclosed space in an office with glass panels.

Lastly, we are seeing an increased need for what are many times referred to as “phone booths”  These are small spaces that typically accommodate 1 or perhaps 2 people [pre-COVID] and allow employees to step away from their workstation to have a conversation privately.  These are handled as standard drywall construction or a furniture system.  

Need help creating a workplace that helps people be their most productive? Premier Construction & Design works with businesses in the Metro Detroit area to help them renovate their offices. Contact us to tell us more about your project or take a look at our portfolio to see more examples of our work.