Posted on 7/7/2014 12:47 PM by Robert Marshall

Poor acoustics is a common problem in today’s open-plan office environments – one that can ultimately cost employers thousands of dollars if left unaddressed. Can you afford to leave workers distracted? A systematic approach to acoustical control can help reduce interruptions in the workplace.

A noisy workplace can be frustrating for employees and lead to decreased productivity. A 2011 workplace acoustical study1 found that office productivity can drop as much as 66% when employees who are trying to read or write are able to hear nearby conversations.

In addition to the price of lost productivity, there are even higher costs incurred by the organization should an employee become unhappy enough to seek employment elsewhere. The study estimates that the costs of hiring and training a replacement can be anywhere from 30-50% of the annual salary for an entry-level employee to 150% of the annual salary for a mid-level employee. It is in the best interest of organizations to retain their best and brightest by providing a more pleasant, focused work environment.

One of the biggest mistakes made in new construction and office retrofits is the failure to take a systematic approach to acoustic control. It is critical to evaluate the entire space and all possible sound transmission paths. If these elements are not addressed as a whole, noise and speech privacy levels will remain unacceptable even after the project is finished. Acoustics is not something to be handled piecemeal.

After addressing mechanical sources of excess noise, introduce adequate sound absorption into the space. For optimal results, look for high-density fiberglass ceiling panels with high noise reduction coefficient (NRC) ratings and floor assemblies with carpeting or sound-absorbing tiles and underlayment. In areas where traditional suspended ceilings are not possible or desirable, large high-density fiberglass panels can be fastened directly onto walls or suspended independently as free-hanging absorbers.

With wall assemblies, seek out products with good sound transmission class (STC) ratings that collectively dampen airborne sounds and impede its transmission from space to space. Effective options include fiberglass batt or blow-in insulation and new noise-reducing gypsum board products. Also ensure that any leaks in ductwork or construction gaps are sealed off to further hinder sound transmission.

Unfortunately, this is where many projects stop, leaving out a crucial component of office acoustics – speech privacy. As contradictory as it may seem, there is such a thing as a workspace that is too quiet. The quieter you make the space, the more limited speech privacy becomes. This is no different than in a library, where people are conditioned to speak in lower tones yet their conversations are still easily understood in adjoining spaces.

The best way to address this problem is through an electronic speech privacy system, which introduces an acceptable amount of specifically tuned background noise into the space. An acoustician can be consulted to assist in the selection and implementation of this technology. The individual devices that make up the system are typically adjustable, allowing facility managers to tailor sound levels to the needs of the space.

Taking a holistic, systematic approach to the acoustical design of office spaces is a wise investment as it ultimately leads to happier, more focused employees who are more productive and likely to stay on longer in their positions.

Robert Marshall is manager, marketing technical services, with CertainTeed Ceilings. CertainTeed Corporation, which is the sponsor of the Down With Decibels.


1 Guerin, Denise A., Jonee Kulman Brigham, Hye-Young Kim, SeonMi Choi, and Angelita Scott. "The Effect of Acoustics and Privacy Conditions and Workstation Type on Employee Satisfaction and Work Performance in a Sustainable Building." Interior Design Educators Council Conference (IDEC), March 2011.