The challenge for office acoustic design is to make people feel at home

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A number of apparent truisms about work and workplaces entered mainstream consciousness in the wake of the pandemic, and the shift to more flexible and hybrid working cultures. 

One of them is that people are better off carrying out focussed, quiet work at home, and creative and collaborative work in the office. And that this might suggest our approach to office acoustics would shift in particular ways.  

But, as always, what we are discovering is that something rather more nuanced and interesting is happening in practice. While it is true that one of the key drivers of productivity is the ability to carry out focussed work, for a significant number of people, this is not possible or best carried out at home. 

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This isn’t just the case for younger people who may not have the space to work remotely. Many people live in circumstances that do not support their ability to work well from home. Some find it doesn’t work for them personally. Some simply prefer not to. 

Many need to carry out focussed work as part of a new hybrid working culture. There’s only so much creative, collaborative work we can do in a day, so we still need to find space for ourselves when we do come into the office. 

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The upshot is that the office must still provide people with the right spaces for both focussed and collaborative work. The same need for a balance between private and shared space that we knew pre-pandemic continues to exist. And this balance cannot be served with the sole provision of acoustic pods in otherwise open, buzzy environments.  

There is no doubt that the role of the office has changed, but many of the things we already knew about agile, flexible spaces continue to hold true. The office should be many things to many people. The need for peace and distraction free work should not be sacrificed on the altar of collaborative work. The paradox is that the things that distract us most – our colleagues and our devices - are also the most valuable for our productivity and creativity. 

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Resolving this great paradox of office acoustics is now a business-critical issue. The Leesman Index, which measures the experience of around one million employees around the world has consistently found that the biggest difference between offices that succeed in providing people with an outstanding experience and those that fail is by supporting activities that could be carried out in an ideal home working environment. In particular, this means those activities that rely on privacy, quiet and focus.  

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Writing in IN Magazine, Tim Oldman of Leesman said this: “Since early March 2020, Leesman has been benchmarking the remote working experience against the parallel office experience to conduct a gap analysis of where the office works best and where the home works best for the employees that we have surveyed. Activities critical to collective work processes, such as problem solving and idea sharing, are best supported in the office, whereas activities that require acoustic privacy are, frankly, better catered for at home.” 

For those organisations keen to attract people back into the office more frequently, this is arguably their most important challenge. How to provide the sort of office acoustic design that provides an equivalent experience to that people enjoy at home.    

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This has already given rise to new types of acoustic office systems involving acoustic panels, workstation screens and tiles as well as new approaches to office design that reflect a new reality. In part, the solution is to provide people with a variety of spaces. This model of the workplace based on task-oriented zones is not new but it is evolving in the context of the new order.

It is also about the design and the specification of the office. Acoustic ceiling products such as Array and Fuji and acoustic walls such as Pico and EchoPanel® Longitude from Woven Image have been designed to meet the challenges of 21st Century acoustic workplace design. They work across a range of settings to provide people with the quiet and focus they need, whether they are in a dedicated zone for collaboration or one that offers them more privacy. 

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The challenge for designers is to remember the person at the centre of it all, with all of their abilities, limitations, motivations and preferences and not fall into the trap of believing the mainstream narratives about what people want or need. They must create spaces that allow people to make the best of the times they need distractions and the times they need to remain focussed.  

Done right, this can be achieved in the same space. But the most important thing is to learn the lesson of the pandemic that one of the things people really want however often they are in an office, is somewhere that feels like home.  

Author: Mark Eltringham 

Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.