Invisible Design for Performance

Discover the ABCD of effective acoustical design

by Haworth, Inc.

One of the most significant factors in job satisfaction is often overlooked simply because you can’t see it: acoustics.

However, you can see its effects in the data on privacy and job satisfaction:  

In a landmark study of over 50,000 workers in 351 buildings, lack of speech privacy is cited as the #1 source of dissatisfaction.

In the movement toward open office plans, people have an increased desire to find spaces in the workplace that provide confidentiality for both work-related and personal conversations. Additionally, different activities require different ways of managing acoustical privacy, leading people to seek out a variety of workspaces—each with specific characteristics that support the work they’re doing at the time. Providing a variety of workspaces with well-designed acoustics allows for proper levels of speech privacy to ensure confidentiality.

Employers who understand and address this need for varying workspaces have more success in achieving higher job satisfaction rates.

Speech Privacy Basics

Speech privacy is simply the absence of speech intelligibility. Here’s how it works:

If the level of speech sounds that reach a listener’s ear is well above that of any background sound, the speech will be clearly heard and understood, or intelligible.

But, if speech sounds at the listener’s location are below the background sound level, the speech will not be understood. Even when a listener can hear the muffled speech sounds of someone talking, speech privacy exists because the listener can’t understand what is being said.

Achieving the right level of speech privacy in a space requires careful assessment and alignment of functional needs with the ambient environment, background sound, and physical design elements, such as walls, ceilings, and floors.

The ABCD of Effective Acoustical Design

To manage speech privacy and intelligibility, follow the ABCD of acoustical workspace design by using elements that absorb, block, cover, and diffuse sound.

Absorb Sounds Within a Space

Special absorptive ceilings, suspended baffles, carpeted floors, and even decorative rugs not only reduce sound levels within rooms, they also reduce undesirable reflection of sound which can cause intelligible speech sounds to carry throughout a space.

Block Sounds Between Spaces

Walls, moveable walls, double pane (2 channel) glass walls, unitized wall systems, and suspended ceiling tiles can all provide physical barriers that block the transmission of speech sounds between rooms.

Cover Intruding Sounds With Background Noise

An electronic sound masking system covers sounds with a consistent background noise. A sort of highly sophisticated “white noise machine,” a masking system is precisely programmed to reduce perceived inconsistencies in sound, such as those created by speech. Masking systems are finely tuned in both frequency and level to meet the needs of different areas throughout the entire workspace.

Diffuse Sounds Within a Space

In larger spaces, physical construction using sound diffusers placed on the walls or ceiling diffuse, or scatter, desired sounds throughout the room, ensuring intelligibility for all intended listeners. Diffusers keep  desired sounds from being absorbed or degraded before reaching listeners farther away from the sound source. It is important to note that A, B, and C techniques are often used to keep diffused sound contained in its space, so as not to disturb those in surrounding areas.

Effective acoustical design may be invisible to most people, but the benefits are easy to see. Employees will be more comfortable at work knowing they have spaces for privacy and connection—where they won’t disturb others who are concentrating on focused tasks nearby. It may take some additional effort, but designing with speech privacy in mind will help keep employees happy, engaged, and productive at work.

More on Acoustics and Design

If you are interested in learning more about acoustics and office acoustics solutions, check out our Acoustic Design Guide.

Download Haworth’s Workplace Acoustical Performance white paper


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