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All ears: How to design sound in an office?

Moving, migration, building or buying a new office is complex business. Such a process is often so complicated that we easily forget about one aspect: sound. Unfortunately, this will come back to haunt you soon enough, when the employees come and the new space becomes populated. How to avoid a nasty surprise, when to involve a sound professional and how to design the invisible – we decided to ask these questions to Adam Stelmach, our sound specialist.

Adam, could you tell us a few words about what you do?

Although the acoustics of office spaces may seem a narrow specialisation, my daily work in fact includes quite a broad range of activities. I implement acoustic projects, I study the properties of materials and structures, I measure acoustics inside office spaces, I create computer simulations, I suggest adaptations and offer advice… Sometimes I also organise trainings and lectures, or I contribute to such publications as “8 Myths About Acoustics.” This is how I try to present the complexities of acoustics in a simple, comprehensible way.

Let’s imagine for a while that we are about to create a new office from scratch. What would you say we should focus on while looking for a place?

At this stage it is good to focus on those elements that may later prove difficult or even impossible to change. What I mean is mainly the insulation of internal walls and the façade. The materials used and the quality of partition walls will affect the noise coming from the outside and from neighbouring rooms. What is equally important is the type of ceiling and floor. If the standard layout of the office includes a suspended ceiling with high sound absorption, further acoustic adaptation may involve lower costs.

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So we should think about acoustics long before we start choosing chairs and desks?

Definitely! If the building is constructed especially for us, it is best to start these considerations at the design stage. If not, we should deal with it when choosing a particular space. It is worth remembering that the final acoustic performance will depend on multiple factors. What is important is, for example, the layout of desks, and the location of individual departments and sometimes even the positioning of individual employees. Once we plan the layout of individual workplaces carefully, we will avoid unnecessary movement around the office and prevent people from talking over the heads of other staff. We should also think of places where you can “hide” the noise. These places will include phone booths, focus rooms or informal meeting areas. Many of those elements can be planned in advance. I always say that the sooner you consider acoustics, the cheaper and more comfortable it will be for you.

And now for a different story. What happens when we have a noisy office? How does it impact our work?

Noise is a widely studied subject. It turns out that noise not only produces greater stress for our organism, manifested as a headache or fatigue, but also – and this should convince even less sensitive managers – it leads to a loss of focus and concentration, reduced effectiveness, motivation and satisfaction with work. This results in higher absenteeism, and ultimately it may even lead to a decision to quit. We have heard of such situations.

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Good acoustics in an office is not an extra, like expensive coffee beans or a hand cream in the bathroom. It makes a noticeable difference. If we observe a 15% drop in employees’ effectiveness due to noise, we have to realise this is a cost for us. Statistically speaking, if we have 20 such employees, 3 of them get paid for nothing.

Now that you said that, it is obvious that a noisy office generates measurable losses. Are there any places that just cannot be improved? In other words, have you ever had any hopeless case in your career?

Unfortunately, I have. In most of such cases nobody took the time to take care of the acoustic aspect when the office was designed, or simply didn’t realise the importance of acoustics. A frequent problem is that sound penetrates between the rooms and it cannot be eliminated without a major construction intervention – such as an extra layer of wool behind the plasterboard. Raw interiors and uncovered hard surfaces, such as concrete, glass or metal, visible installations under the ceilings – these are now in fashion. Such spaces often don’t give us a chance to apply any sound-absorbing solutions, which would reduce the reverberation time and the resulting noise.

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Nevertheless, your work proves that a lot can be done. What can we do when the office is too noisy? What solutions would you suggest?

There is no one good answer to this question, because every space requires individual consideration. Many people assume that the more “acoustic” products, the better. In fact, by placing them at random in our office we can do more harm than good. We wrote more about it in our recent special report titled “8 myths about acoustics.” The main challenge for a sound specialist is to suggest such solutions that will be dedicated and customised for a specific space and will properly address its current issues.

Many available products include upholstered  foam or fleece fabric. This is how they absorb high and midrange frequencies. However, it is not the only range we have to deal with. There are spaces where low frequencies are the problem. These include spaces where you can hear thuds and human steps sound like a drum. In the Nowy Styl Group we have come up with products that give a sound specialist a choice and a chance to address specific frequency ranges. And this is the key to balanced, natural sound in any space. Our solutions are analysed with regard to their acoustic properties and this is why I, as well as any other sound specialist, can make the best of them and use them more consciously.

Greater consciousness is something I would like to wish both to the owners and employees, and, last but not least, to myself.

Adam Stelmach
Interview conducted by: Emilia Blutko

Download the 8 Myths About Acoustics report

Sound only seems uncontrollable. To learn more about tackling sound, read our report!

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