We all need a bit of space every now and then, and the workplace is no different.

Research in 2004 showed that approximately 73% of office workers were based in open plan offices (Sykes, 2004), and today that number is likely to have increased.

With an emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, flexibility and communication, the modern office has embraced the benefits that an open plan environment can offer. However with multiple generations working together and inevitable interaction, sometimes noise levels can prove to be an issue, which in turn can have a knock-on effect on productivity.

At Acoustics ’08 Paris, a meeting devoted to the science of acoustics, it was shown that employees who were comfortable with their working environment were more likely to generate better work (Lee & Brand, 2005; Sundstrom, Town, Rice, Osborn, & Brill, 1994). So the wellbeing and comfort of staff should be at the forefront of any business when it comes to their office design.

Some generations find their own way to solve the problem…

Steelcase Headphones, modern office furniture

Image courtesy of Steelcase

However, advances in modern office furniture have found other ways to solve this potential problem. Steelcase and Kinnarps, the two global office furniture manufacturers that we partner with, have conducted their own research into how your office can encourage collaboration and also offer quiet spaces for concentration.

UK-based consultancy, The Sound Agency, told Steelcase in their Body Mind Environment study that background noise in the workplace has been found to increase employees’ stress hormone levels. You may have experienced first-hand the Lombard effect, when people start to speak louder as the environment around them gets noisier. But a completely silent workplace can actually be quite intimidating, so the solution is to give people choices and provide them with spaces where they can get away from it all.

Steelcase’s own Workplace Survey of over 37,000 workers found that 95% said they wanted access to quiet, private spots for confidential conversations and concentrated work. 91% said that they also needed casual spaces to re-energise.

Swedish based company Kinnarps responded to research by the HRF (Swedish Association of Hard of Hearing People) that stated approximately 57 per cent of those who work in open office landscapes feel that the noise level is disturbing. The 2009 survey of over 500 people resulted in Kinnarps designing and producing a sound absorber to tackle the problem.

In collaboration with designer Christian Halleröd, they created Oktav; a wall mounted sound absorber that complies with Class A sound absorption. Because they can be arranged in a number of patterns and colours they can also add a vibrant splash of colour to the office design.

- oktav pattern edited scaled - Paramount D&B

Image courtesy of Kinnarps

An area is measured using Sabine’s reverberation equation, which shows precisely how many Oktav absorbers are needed. They not only improve the working environment but also the wider ecological environment, since the filling consists of up to 60% re:fill, a recycled material containing recycled waste from Kinnarps’ factories.

This issue is a global one, with a survey by the University of Sydney identifying that 30% of respondents found noise made by colleagues as the disruption that was hardest to deal with. However, 60% saw a lack of privacy and not being able to concentrate as a much bigger issue. One potential solution for this could be Kinnarps’ Rezon screen system. By screening off certain areas, spaces can be created to form private areas in the open office.

- rezon desktop screens - Paramount D&B

Image courtesy of Kinnarps

Whether your staff choose to wear headphones, find a room with a door that they can close or settle down in a noise-dampened corner of the office, the important thing is to give them choices. The open plan office will always be a great way to encourage collaboration and foster creativity, but every now and then they’ll need somewhere to relax, concentrate and ‘get away from it all’.

Written by Helen Bartlett, Design Director.