With the rise of the open office has come the rise of what I’ll call the open office symphony: the consistent click-clack of a colleague who types a little bit too aggressively, the boisterous yammer of loud talkers, and intermittent laughs about something on Slack or Twitter or YouTube.
While I’m sure most of your coworkers are respectful and only err in their ways momentarily (hey, I’m guilty of the aforementioned offenses myself), the din can make it difficult not just to focus, but also to hold meetings and collaborate. But the right design and problem-solving products can help. We spoke to four architects at firms that have designed offices for HBO, Uber, LinkedIn, and Nike about their tricks of the trade.
Buy Your Way Out Of The Problem
The easiest way to block noise is to introduce physical barriers. Softer tactile surfaces can “trap” sound and reduce how much sound is reflected, and in turn, how disruptive noise is. This doesn’t mean building a fort out of heavy drapery. Designers have gotten pretty good at making acoustic panels very attractive, like Baux’s patterned acoustic tiles, FilzFelt’s natural felt panels, and Carnegie’s Xorel Artform panels. Certain textiles can even block sound while allowing for visual transparency, like Designtex’s Acoustic Sheers. Even lighting can be found in sound-absorbing iterations, like BuzziSpace’s BuzziPleat lamp.
“A key question we ask per project is whether to celebrate the material as a design move with interesting color or texture, or whether we want the material to disappear and just reduce the movement of sound through a space without calling attention to itself,” says Patrick Bradley, a Project Architect at Studio O+A who has worked on offices for Nike and Yelp, among others. Some of his favorite moves? Arktura acoustical baffles for sculptural effects; K-13 spray-on cellulose that has “remarkable absorptive properties make the work space feel like the inside of a cloud,” he says; and fully upholstered seating nooks.
There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When it comes to work-space noise, freestanding phone booths, like Jabbrrbox’s pods, and meeting rooms, like Steelcase’s Irys pod, can isolate noxious noise before it permeates an entire office.
Architect Your Way Into Silence
Most interior designers and architects would argue that the surefire way to reduce noise is to work with a professional to come up with a tailored solution for an office (hey, that’s what experts are for).
Denise Cherry, cofounder of the San Francisco firm Assembly Design, says acoustics have become a top priority for her clients, regardless of budget or scale. In years past, designing for noise was considered a luxury. While the woes of open offices are some of the most common complaints, she advises that sound transfer between conference rooms is an overlooked, but important, consideration. “If you can hear the conversation in the conference room next to you, you know they can hear yours,” she says. “And if you don’t feel safe to have a confidential conversation, it’s difficult to trust your work space.”
Her preferred noise-mitigating solutions? “Ones that are hiding in plain sight,” she says. “Wood ceilings with micro-perforations to deaden noise, felted or fabric wrapped surfaces that blend with their surroundings, or acoustic plaster, a material so subtle it essentially looks like drywall.”
David Holt–a design director at IA: Interior Architects and a senior associate at the firm, which counts LinkedIn, Bacardi, and Dyson as clients–says that the most effective strategy is to understand adjacency and how to organize people effectively. Seating heads-down, high-focus people away from more social and informal groups is key. But for spaces that are tight to begin with, high-back furniture can help create some division.
“Two wingback-style chairs facing each other are remarkably effective for a semi-private conversation,” Holt says. “It gets the acoustic absorption right where you need it, provides a bit of visual privacy, and the seating solution and the acoustic solution move together, for added flexibility.”
David Galullo–CEO and chief creative officer of Rapt Studio, a firm that designed for HBO and Dropbox–has noticed that his clients have accepted higher noise levels in open offices, but there’s still a need for privacy and quiet. His solution? Choice.
“Our strategies are less about minimization and more about offering a range of options for the level of distraction that is acceptable for specific tasks,” he tells Co.Design. “The mix of focus rooms, spaces that are programmed as quiet spaces, and various task-focused spaces built around a client’s individual processes are really the go-to strategy.”
One of Patrick Bradley’s go-to moves in designing offices is to divide an open-plan space into smaller sections. “Often we will break down what could otherwise feel like an open sea of workstations with screening partitions, or packs of new built rooms, to create smaller ‘neighborhoods’ of workstations,” he says. “Not only does this make you feel like you’re working in a smaller group situation, but it also offers your neighborhood some great breakaway opportunities right nearby.”
Add Noise (Hear Us Out!)
A light hum of activity can mask some of the more intrusive noises in an office–like a phone call–and can actually make work spaces nicer to inhabit.
“If it’s the kind of client where it’s a good cultural and practical fit, music playing at the right level does a good job of masking phone conversations and provides some mood and ambiance,” Holt says. “It’s a nice way to engage more senses in the design.”
For that, Bang & Olufsen has the BeoSound Shape, a modular wall-mounted audio system that dampens sound when it’s off. It’s really an architectural product more than just speakers: the ridged, fabric-covered units trap and muffle sound waves.
Galullo points out that there’s “no one size fits all” solution to noise, and it all depends on the culture of a space. Some companies swear by headphones, others frown upon them since they impede communication. What it boils down to is figuring out what people want. “When [I] asked where a young client goes for privacy, the response was ‘Starbucks,’ which is not unique,” Galullo says. “This, in itself is an example of the acceptance of ‘noise’ as a given, but redefines the word ‘privacy.'”
Perhaps the sound of a milk frother is the product solution to disruptive noise. I’ll take my headphones–or any of the solutions in the slide show above.