Sound is particularly critical in the office environment as it affects people's feelings and behaviour. In an open office setting, high noise levels, lack of speech privacy and distraction from conversations can influence the performance of workers. The partial height panels used in open office layouts allow sound to be transmitted more quickly throughout the space. To eliminate distractions in this office set up, it is essential to understand the process of sound transmission and the role of acoustics in achieving speech privacy.
In an office, sound is generated by people, equipment such as computers, printers, photocopier machines, and stapling devices, and items of furniture such as chairs and tables. When sound is transmitted, it is received by the people, and the transmission can occur through three different ways:
- A direct path where the sound travels directly from the source to the receiver in a straight line.
- A reflected path where the sound travels from the source but bounces off different surfaces to the receiver.
- A diffracted path where the sound bends over and around surfaces and barriers to the receiver.
In an open office plan, sound can be transmitted through these three types of paths; therefore, if there are poor acoustics, speech privacy cannot be achieved even in the presence of partitions.
Significance of speech privacy
Speech privacy is achieved when speech cannot be understood by parties other than the communicating parties. In an open plan office, speech problems can occur in two ways:
- Other people's conversations or equipment can cause distracting and disturbing noise.
- Private and confidential communications can be impossible to conduct as sound can travel through reflected or diffracted paths.
In an open plan, achieving maximum speech privacy can be impractical, but there is a way in which the distance that a conversation is heard can be reduced. This can help improve the performance of employees and allow the exchange of confidential work information without jeopardy.
How to achieve speech privacy
Paying attention to office acoustics at the design and planning stage can be effective in achieving the desired levels of speech privacy. The objective of the acoustics design should be to allow communication within working areas while providing speech privacy and minimising distractions within the office. This can be achieved by developing systems that perform either of the following:
- Reduce speech levels below the ambient noises.
- Increase ambient noise levels above the speech level.
- Regulate background noise levels and speech levels to achieve a balance between the two.
Various systems can be used to improve acoustics and achieve the desired level of speech privacy. Working with acoustical consultants can help you develop a custom acoustic system and design to improve speech privacy in your office and improve the performance of the workers.