In a former life I worked for a very large engineering company with over 1,000 engineers working in an open plan office, everyone working on one floor. We lovingly referred to our floor as the “cube farm”. One day I arrived at the office just as the lunch crowd was making their mass exodus. Although I was frustrated by my inability to enter the building, I couldn’t help but think of the old “how many college kids can fit into a VW Beetle” gag as I waited for the never-ending trail of people to exit the building.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that most companies are decreasing the amount of working space allotted for individual employees.

This reduction was one of the major catalysts to the open plan office in the first place. However, as budgets become more constrained by other business costs and the “open” feel of employee workspaces is pursued even more aggressively, we tend to find an increase in acoustical problems. Cubicle walls are getting lower, workstations are getting closer, and the open structure look is equally appealing for aesthetics as well as its cost implications.

The question of the day: How do you prevent the unwanted distraction of fellow employees, protect the privacy of your staff, and still allow for a collaborative environment?

The answer: It depends… Every company has a different culture; some companies require large group collaboration while others rely on focused work from individuals. To complicate the mix even more, internal groups from your company may have their own requirements.

When designing open plan offices we consider factors such as staff density (how many people can we fit into that old VW?), partition types and geometry, sound absorption within the room, and sound masking (when appropriate). As we start to fill that VW to capacity, privacy decreases and distraction increases.

The major role of your designer/consultant team should be to help you understand the trade-offs when designing a space to fit your culture. There are a lot of options that exist between the extremes of enclosed private offices and open floor space filled with tables. Achieving the right “look” might be easy; but the real challenge is to have the right “look” with the right “sound”.

Check out our online portfolio to see examples of acoustical design for open offices.

ABD Engineering and Design

ABD Engineering and Design is one of North America’s leading independent acoustical consulting and AV design firms, serving clients across the United States and Canada, as well as other international markets from offices in Grand Rapids, MI and Portland, OR. Our specialized acoustical engineering and AV design practices help architects, building owners, engineers, facility directors, and municipalities design spaces, environments, and systems for optimal acoustical and audiovisual performance. Our consulting practice areas specialize in all aspects of architectural acoustics, environmental and industrial noise and vibration control, and audiovisual systems design.

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