We have been consulting on and researching acoustics for open plan offices since 2010. We undertook a commission to advise on the transition of moving from cellular to an open plan arrangement. The move from cellular to open plan has been the FM story of recent times, but there has been a large kick back from people subjected to industrialised rows of desks. Noise is typically among the main issues of complaints according to Leesman research. However, we must be cautious about the approach to noise in open plan offices.
Intolerance and frustration with noise in the workplace can be understood as annoyance that interferes with the ability to concentrate and work effectively. Annoyance is closely related to the sense of control – the level of control we have over an environmental factor is very significant when determining the level of annoyance induced. A German psycho-acoustic study indicates that only about 30 – 40 % of the annoyance due to noise can be attributed to so-called “acoustic factors”. The predominant portion comes from “moderators of annoyance”; these include the ability to control the noise, attitude towards the noise-maker, predictability of the noise event, activity profile of the employee, organisational and business structure, including identification with the business, workload, other environmental factors such as illumination and thermal comfort as well as individual noise sensitivity.
The acoustics of open plan offices is about so much more than just the acoustic characteristics of the empty room. It is about the type of activities that are performed – such as individual working, collaborating with colleagues at the desk, or talking on the telephone, for example. It is about the culture of the workplace, the relationships between people, and individual psychology; it is about the attitude to the organisation; and it is about the other aspects of the environment.
Our new method is quickly gaining widespread endorsement across the industry, following an Innovation Award by the Association of Noise Consultants, and being highly commended in the John Connell Awards at the Palace of Westminster by the Noise Abatement Society.
Research and dissemination
In January 2020 we presented our collected thoughts on “Open plan offices: advances in acoustic design” at an IOA NE Branch Meeting. This was updated for a combined Central and Eastern Branch meeting in July 2020, including thoughts on offices in a post-Covid-19 world. This presentation is a wide-ranging re-evaluation of the acoustic design tools available, considering the acoustic response of the room, activities, adjacencies, people, and culture in an organisation.
In September 2019, we presented our paper ISO 3382-3: Necessary but not sufficient. A new approach to acoustic design for activity-based working offices” at ICA 2019 in Aachen, Germany. There was a lively discussion around updating standards to address in-use conditions in open plan, rather than relying on the specifications of the room. We are actively contributing to these new and emerging International Standards (see below). In May 2019, we published and presented our new method for acoustic design in open plan offices at the Institute of Acoustics annual conference. The method takes an occupant-centred approach to acoustic design, rather than the traditional approach of specifications for the room design.
We have been disseminating our research into open plan office acoustics since the ANC Conference in 2016. We organised a session on open plan office acoustics at the International Congress on Sound and Vibration (ICSV24), July 2017, London, and invited experts from around the world; the highlights of the papers presented are summarised in the Acoustic Bulletin. We also presented our research in this session, on the implicit cultural expectations of other countries’ criteria for open plan offices. We compared the implicit design implications in the emerging and established standards from Finland, France and Germany.
In December 2019, we are co-organising a one day meeting on open plan office acoustics in Birmingham through the Building Acoustics group of the Institute of Acoustics. Following the call for papers, we have invited speakers from across the industry to create an informative and inspiring day to learn about acoustic design for open plan offices. We are using the meeting to introduce the working draft International Standard ISO 22955.
ISO 22955, Acoustic Quality of Open Office Spaces
We represent the British Standards Institute on the International Standards Organisation Technical Committee 43, Sub-Committee 1, Working Group 65 – known as ISO/TC 43/SC 1/WG 65. We are active contributors to ISO 22955, Acoustic Quality of Open Office Spaces, which is currently under development and due to be published in 2020. Our award-winning method is currently embedded in this Standard. Watch this space, though, as the date of publication is outside our control.