Designing Workspaces for Higher Productivity
The open-office trend can work against employee productivity
if not designed responsibly.
by Tiernan Carsia


When Jennifer Stanton graduated from Arizona State University's College of Business and entered the professional world, she didn't expect a corner office with her name on the door. She didn't even expect a door. Stanton, a 26-year-old planning analyst, spends a chunk of her day churning through data for a large technology company from her cubicle. She represents the growing number of employees asked to work in an open-office environment, rather than in a traditional, four-walled office.

"I think fewer people are expecting offices these days," says Stanton. "Plenty of companies are using cubicles to avoid obvious professional hierarchies. Some companies use the open-office plan to support a business philosophy that encourages communication and a collaborative environment. "It's nice to have an office that literally encourages an open-door policy," she continues. "The only thing that I can complain about is constantly having to tune out the conversations around me in order to concentrate."

She's not alone.

Companies must increase their awareness of the acoustic environments of open-office spaces if optimal business success is to be achieved.


Few would deny that employees such as Stanton are the lifeblood of any company. Competition is fierce to recruit, train, and retain key talent, and employers are striving to add a positive, healthy work environment to their list of accolades. Office space consumes a large portion of any company's budget. One of the advantages of an open office is the ability to fit a maximum number of employees in a minimum amount of space. Sounds like a great idea, and it is . . . in theory.

Employers who opt for open offices over traditional office settings are immediately faced with new challenges, one of them being the task of designing an environment that enables employee productivity, health, and safety. A large facet of this challenge involves accounting for the way the office sounds. How do you ensure your employees are not distracted several times throughout the day because of office noise? How do you protect your employees from unnecessary stress? "Every component of an office must work in concert in order to experience an ideal acoustic setting," says Tony Sola, an acoustical consultant and instructor of architectural acoustics at Arizona State. The components Sola refers to include:
  • Systems furniture
  • Partition height and composition
  • Space planning
  • Ceiling height and material
  • Wall treatment, shape, and placement
  • HVAC noise and design
  • Plenum depth and materials, and
  • Mechanical systems within the plenum.
When open offices are designed correctly, the space becomes a powerful business tool, enabling the company to save money while facilitating communication and encouraging teamwork. Yet companies adopting open offices run the risk of hindering business success for the sake of saving money. Failing to consider the design, installation, and maintenance of each specified component could result in an office where employees simply pluck away at keyboards, answer phones, and crunch numbers, essentially defeating the purpose of an innovative open-office system.

Consequences of Trends
As many businesses expand globally and expectations of both employees and employers soar, there is an overwhelming concern for increased productivity. A primary inhibitor of productivity is office noise; but the majority of employers do not recognize the severity of the potential problem!

"The single most powerful determinant of individual performance, team performance, and job satisfaction is the ability to do, for all job types, large amounts of distraction-free work . . . with noise being the greatest bulk of distractions." --Michael Brill, president of BOSTI ASSOCIATES


In a recent study completed for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) by Yankelovich Partners, 70 percent of office workers polled agreed that productivity would increase if office noise would decrease. But a subsequent study (conducted for ASID by L.C. Williams and Associates) proved that business executives do not acknowledge the problem: 81 percent of those polled reported they were not concerned with office noise. Through this obvious discrepancy, it is clear that companies must increase their awareness of the acoustic environments of open-office spaces if optimal business success is to be achieved.

Beyond productivity, office acoustics also affect employee health and safety. Many studies acknowledge that noise (even at low levels) is a known cause of stress. Stress causes health problems such as high blood pressure, digestive disorders, headaches, hypertension, and ulcers. Nobody wants unhealthy (and therefore unproductive) employees.

One of the most important aspects of an open office, as far as productivity is concerned, is the ability to conduct work without distraction. "The single most powerful determinant of individual performance, team performance, and job satisfaction is the ability to do, for all job types, large amounts of distraction-free work . . . with noise being the greatest bulk of distractions," says Michael Brill, founder and president of BOSTI ASSOCIATES, a pioneering presence in workplace research, planning, and design.

Because the majority of most employees' time at work is spent doing "quiet" work such as writing, reading, editing, or analyzing, it makes sense to pay attention to the acoustics of the space. "When I am designing an open office, I always consider the acoustic impact of the materials I am using," says Marci Scronic, IIDA, a Phoenix interior designer and president of the Southwest chapter of the International Interior Design Association. "I think about where I am placing people, how I am grouping job types, sound masking, the type of telephones being used, panel height and ceiling systems."

According to industry estimates, employees spend 25 percent of their time on the job conversing in and around their office cubicles, generating significant distractions. Eliminating typical office conversations is not realistic, as Scronic admits: "You cannot solve all of the distractions, but you can put people in the best situation to deal with them." While the ability to communicate freely with co-workers is essential, it is equally important to conduct business with limited interruption.

Solutions
There are plenty of solutions available to combat potential acoustic problems in open-office spaces in order to facilitate employee productivity. "There really is no reason to ignore acoustics in any space, whether it be a concert hall, an open office, or an industrial facility," says Sola. "In the past, there has been a stigma associated with acoustic products. Some professionals think they're utilitarian and that they limit your design options, but nothing could be further from the truth." That is, as long as you plan correctly.

Consider installing a sound masking unit or system. Properly tuned, a masking system provides speech privacy without distraction.


Following a few simple guidelines, facility managers, business owners, and designers can create ideal acoustic environment. These guidelines are not independent; rather, they work "in concert":
  • Material Component--Choose your materials early and carefully in order to ensure the best selection and results. Regardless of the look you're trying to achieve, there are acoustic products to meet your needs without sacrificing aesthetics.
  • Space Planning Component--Plan your space with end users in mind. Think about what the open office space will sound like, once the furniture is moved in and the employees report to work. Carefully accounting for the placement of cubicles, restrooms, work areas, break rooms, and equipment rooms will help to isolate potential acoustic distractions.
  • Sound Masking Component--Once you have the materials and planning in place, consider installing a sound masking unit or system. In some cases, the absence of sound can make conversations or HVAC noise extremely distracting. Properly designed, installed, and tuned, a masking system provides speech privacy without distraction.
Design to Enable
As far as open-office acoustics are concerned, a wide variety of options can create optimal professional environments. The most important step is to simply think about the end user. It is clear that workplace design should not be overlooked: An office is an investment in your company, not just a place for employees to work. The design and layout must support and enable your employees, not hinder them.

Clearly, open offices can be beneficial to employee morale, satisfaction, and productivity, as well as the employer's bottom line, provided the proper steps are taken to design the office responsibly. Doing so could give your company the edge when it comes to recruiting, training, and retaining employees such as Jennifer Stanton. "I recognize that I'm important to this company," she says. "If I don't produce, the business could suffer. I don't want that to happen."

This article was first published in Occupational Health & Safety (September 2002, Vol.71, No.9)


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