Simple Recommendations for Acoustical Etiquette in Open-Plan Offices

July 26, 2007
Cambridge, MA-based Cambridge Sound Management LLC, a leading worldwide supplier of low-voltage sound masking systems for the workplace, has released a series of recommendations for acoustical etiquette in the workplace.

"The No. 1 facility-related complaint expressed by people working in the open-plan office environment is inadequate privacy from neighbors," says Tom Horrall, a seasoned acoustical professional who has consulted on thousands of office environments. Trends in the office design and furniture industries are bringing employees out of private offices and into the open plan with the goal of fostering communication and productivity. An often-overlooked side effect of these office plans is that more unwanted sound is traveling throughout the space.

The single most effective tool for reducing the annoyance of such office noise is adequate background sound, such as that generated by an electronic soundmasking system. However, even the best soundmasking system may not be able to fully reduce acoustical annoyance by itself.

If implemented, the following recommendations will go a long way toward enhancing acoustical privacy and ensuring fewer disruptions in open office environments.
  1. Never use a speakerphone. Not only is speakerphone sound an annoyance in itself, but people usually speak louder when using a speakerphone, causing further annoyance to their neighbors. The office noise transmitted to the external party by a speakerphone is also an annoyance to them and may even degrade their ability to hear the conversation. Pick up the telephone handset or use a headset.
  2. Develop a softer telephone voice. Many telephones have an adjustment called "sidetone" which can help with this. Sidetone is the amount of the telephone user's own voice that he hears in his receiver. If it is set too low, the user usually speaks louder than necessary, annoying his neighbor. Many telephone vendors don't take the time to adjust the sidetone properly during installation and they may have to be called to make the adjustment. There are also "stoplight"-type monitor devices available that remind the user to keep his voice down.
  3. Adjust telephone ring loudness. If your phone has an adjustable ring loudness setting, make sure it is only as loud as necessary.
  4. Set cell phones and pagers to minimum ring volume, or better still, vibrate mode. If vibrate mode is not feasible, make sure the ringtone setting is subtle and that the phone is as close to the user's work position as feasible so that it is audible at a low-volume setting. Don't leave the cell phone when going to lunch - take it with you so that ringtones don't annoy neighbors when there is no one to pick up the phone.
  5. Take cell phones to a break room or other private space if a call is likely to be protracted. Also consider letting voicemail take a message and return the call from a landline. One of the worst breaches of office etiquette is those people who make long, loud personal calls at their cubicle desks instead of stepping outside (or into a more private area).
  6. Listen to any music over headphones, not loudspeakers. Music listening in the office is increasingly acceptable, but remember that one person's music is another's noise. If it is frequently necessary to hear colleagues entering your office while listening to music, use "open-air" type headphones, or even a single earbud, rather than one in each ear. Don't hum or sing along to the music.
  7. Use Instant Messaging (IM). IM is also becoming commonplace in the office. Do you really need to go have a verbal conversation with a colleague or would a brief IM do just as well (or maybe even better)?
  8. Don't make unnecessary noise in the office. Gum-cracking, coffee-slurping, ice-chomping, pen-tapping, and, most offensive of all, full-bellied belching potentially annoy all of your neighbors. A cubicle is a public area; those working inside should act as they would in any other public area.

While such guidelines may seem like common courtesies, implementing these acoustical etiquette recommendations in an open-office workspace will go a long way toward reducing distractions and enhancing employee comfort.

This information was provided by and reprinted with permission from Cambridge Sound Management LLC.

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