More and more companies are considering open-concept offices. According to the International Facility Management Association, roughly 70 percent of offices in North America have some form of open-concept workspace despite studies that indicate these environments can adversely impact productivity. Why are businesses willing to take the risk? When designed and implemented properly, open-concept workspace is proven to help employees work more collaboratively, develop better relationships and cultivate a more positive workplace culture.

The Challenges with Open-Concept Space

The main drawbacks are related to acoustic privacy – reducing or eliminating sounds in an environment that can distract or disturb. This includes conversations both seen and overheard.

A recent study reveals that the lack of sound privacy in an office environment is the biggest frustration for employees.

One of the biggest complaints open-concept office workers have is general noise levels are too high. While working with a certain amount of ambient noise has been known to foster creativity, too much noise can negate that benefit. Excessive noise can increase stress and fatigue, as well as impair an employee’s ability to recall information or even do simple math. Unwilling listeners demonstrate a 5-10% decline in productivity when performing tasks like reading, writing or other forms of creative work. Often just hearing that someone is speaking can interrupt concentration. This is magnified when you can clearly understand what the person is saying – it’s much harder to ignore a conversation if you can follow it. If the average person takes 20 minutes to refocus on a task, this can result in as much as 86 minutes of lost productivity per employee in a typical day.

Overcoming These Challenges

Incorporating appropriate sound control into office design will ultimately reduce overall noise levels. This can include using sound absorbing materials that won’t compromise office aesthetics, or using low-level, ambient sound (such as white noise) to mask unwanted noise. There are many acoustical solutions on the market today that can be installed to reduce noise. Hard surfaces, for example, do a poor job at absorbing sound. Consider swapping out hard floors for a plush commercial grade carpet or opt for soft drop ceilings that soak up sound while incorporating modern shapes, colours, and designs. Adding wall mounted acoustical solutions to your meeting rooms can act not only as a unique piece of branding but also a tool to control the acoustical privacy of a meeting. You can minimize noise distraction in your open-concept office by strategically placing quiet or loud areas. Even if your office space is limited, designating small areas for collaboration can mitigate noise distractions. This can be done by using an unoccupied conference room, telephone booth or a tucked away corner. If your office is really tight on space, try scheduling quiet times throughout the day. This can be done by designating a few hours a day or week where employees are encouraged to work individually and quietly.

The Bottom Line

Open-concept offices are proven to help employees work more collaboratively, develop better relationships, and cultivate a more positive workplace culture. These benefits, however, can be negated due to excessive noise levels and a lack of acoustic privacy. If you want to capitalize on the collaborative benefits of open offices, consider taking the time to learn about the products on the market that can help your office space maintain a healthy ambience. There are solutions that will dramatically reduce the challenges associated with excessive noise so that businesses can benefit from increased collaboration and socialization amongst coworkers. Working with an experienced commercial interior design team will help you take advantage of the pros and eliminate the cons of open-concept offices.
Connect Resource Managers and Planners Inc. is a team of experienced commercial interior design and furniture specialists with a passion to help businesses create productive, functional, unique and healthy work spaces. Learn more about our workplace solutions.

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