Workplace comfort matters.

And several things must be done right for people to feel comfortable in the space they work. Your office design needs to support how each employee works. The lighting needs to be right. The indoor air quality, the temperature and the noise control matter to people. When all these things are done right, your workplace design supports employee performance, health and wellness.

But for this post, we’re going to focus on the element that often gets overlooked by office designers, especially with the more contemporary (read open) office designs—and that’s acoustical comfort.

What Is Acoustical Comfort?

In a blog post last summer, we talked with Steve Johnson, who works for ADI Workplace Acoustics, about bad conference room acoustics and how they’ve been sabotaging the clarity, privacy and focus of meetings. Steve’s company creates sound masking systems and offers speech privacy services to businesses nationwide—so he knows all about the importance of offices achieving acoustical comfort and ways they can get it.

We again turned to him to get some of his insights on this matter.

According to Steve, acoustical comfort is, “A condition within a room or space that allows that space to be used effectively.”

Seems easy enough to achieve, right? Well, office designers and companies clearly aren’t getting it right as surveys keep finding that acoustic quality is the one factor continually receiving disapproval from office building occupants.

Maybe that’s because people, at least those who can change it, don’t fully understand the importance of having acoustical comfort? Maybe they don’t know the steps to take to get it? Or maybe it’s both.

Why You Need Acoustical Comfort

The No. 1 reason you need better noise control in your office is so your employees can actually be productive.

A World Green Building Council report found that office noise distractions triggered a 66% drop in concentration and performance with those surveyed. And while productivity is a hard thing to measure, Steve said it’s one of the main reasons offices need to strive to achieve acoustical comfort.

“Companies that pay attention to acoustics benefit from higher levels of productivity and higher levels of satisfaction in their workforce. It is readily apparent through numerous studies that distraction from conversations reduces productivity. When distraction occurs, work stops and error rates increase. Improvement of workplace acoustics reduces distractions and allows more effective work. If there was a magic productivity pill for the workplace, it would be acoustics.”

He even went on to say that The WELL Building Standard recognizes that workplace acoustics affect the health of workers. People exposed to excessive amounts of loud noise experience hearing damage, increased stress hormone levels, raised blood pressure, motivational loss and are even susceptible to slumping.

Not to mention not having better noise control is costly. In Europe alone, the cost of noise pollution is $30.8 billion per year. That estimated amount accounts for lost productivity, lost work days, health care treatment and impaired learning.

How You Achieve Acoustical Comfort

So how can you provide the best workplace environment for your employees through acoustical comfort?

When we asked Steve, he said in terms of meetings room specifically, acoustical comfort is largely determined by Reverberation Time, or RT. Rooms with glass, whiteboards and similar hard surfaces cause sound to reflect around the room and create an uncomfortable environment for talking, whether in person or over the phone. His solution here is to add acoustical materials that absorb sound, like pictured below.

Image courtesy of Steve Johnson.

His other solution is sound masking.

“Another key to an effective meeting room is to have acoustical isolation from surrounding areas,” he said. “When conversations from outside the room are understandable, they distract the occupants from the business at hand. When walls, ceilings, windows and doors allow sound to pass freely, sound masking systems provide an effective improvement. When a good mix of acoustical materials to absorb sound and sound masking to increase privacy are implemented, workspaces become highly effective.”

The General Services Administration also mentions that there needs to be enhanced employee awareness of their coworkers to achieve improve acoustic features. You’d think people would have common sense and be respectful of how close their colleagues are to them, but we all know that employee who still takes work-related and personal phone calls from her desk talking in her loud outside voice. Have managers or team leaders remind employees to be mindful and respectful of those they sit near. You can even set up what some call “neighborhood agreements” where those within the same vicinity or on the same floor decide the rules of when it’s fine to talk at your desk, when it’s appropriate to have meetings at someone’s desk, etc.

Today’s workplace trends involve improving office productivity and cutting costs. Achieving acoustical comfort is one way to meet both your productivity and cost goals, while also providing a comfortable work environment.