Listening in on an Open Office Feedback Session

By Matt Nees 7.22.2014

How quiet is your office? If you’re like most people, you’re probably not happy with the noise, distractions, and lack of privacy. There is a consistent and growing body of evidence that, more than any other aspect of their environment, office workers are unhappy with their workplaces’ acoustics. Imagine that—more people hate that they can overhear and be overheard by their coworkers than are unhappy with the thermostat setting.

The lack of acoustic privacy in modern offices is caused by a variety of issues including architectural designs intended to foster more collaborative and flexible workflows and office life. The architects, designers, and office furniture companies promoting these designs are often aware of the compromised acoustics of their designs, but they are not always equipped with the knowledge to prevent these problems.

I recently got to sit in on a meeting between a CSM partner and one of their clients eight months after a major remodel and restructuring of their office (sound masking was not part of the remodel). A sample of ten of the office workers attended the meeting to represent the entire office’s views, and they had no clue that there was a “noise guy” in the room. I did not even introduce myself, so they probably thought I was an intern.

The meeting started with each of the ten or so workers given sticky notes of different colors on which they could write both things they liked about the space and things they did not like. When the pink “dislike” stickies went up, there was a clear trend in many of them: acoustic privacy was the major concern. Over half of the pink stickies were about sound in some way.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

The sticky notes

The sticky notes

  •     “Very loud. Sound travels too much”
  •     “Noise and conversation carries between the conference rooms”
  •     “Some areas are noisy and loud, people can be distracting”
  •     “Can be noisy sometimes/hard to concentrate”
  •     “Noise level”

Some comments also delved into the etiquette of noise in the office such as:

  •     “Conference Rooms (people need to close doors)”
  •     “Phone etiquette (loud voices)”

The office was organized into different “neighborhoods” where many workers have the ability to migrate around the office and find a place to work which suits them. They have found that the different neighborhoods have taken on different “personalities” with noticeably different noise levels which strongly factor into individuals’ decision of where to sit.

The discussion briefly touched on etiquette relating to employees wearing headphones in the office. Those surveyed did not know the proper etiquette when a colleague they needed to speak to had headphones on, and noted they felt awkward and even guilty when trying to get their attention. While headphones might help employees block out unwanted noise distractions it can be uncomfortable for their coworkers when they do so.

I also learned that problems with thermal comfort caused employees to leave conference room doors open in order to get better airflow. Workers were essentially made to choose between acoustic privacy for their meeting or being too hot or cold in the meeting room.

Overall, the workers liked their contemporary office environment, they just wished it were “quieter.” Of course, what they really want is not quiet, but privacy and freedom from distractions.

Rob Luckey, CSM Field Sales Engineer


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