There's only one thing everyone in an open office design can agree on: the noise is annoying. Distractions are the number one complaint by employees, followed closely by lack of privacy. And we all know that the use of headphones as a sound block is really the universal sign for, "Don't bother me."

With 80% of offices in the US following open design plans, how do companies battle these issues? One answer is with smartly designed furniture and décor. Acoustic panels on the ceilings--particularly in warehouse-to-office type locations where loft-style ceilings carry sound in unexpected ways--can be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Movable walls are another versatile choice that brings more benefit than simple sound dampening.

Sound: The Pulse of Your Company

But what if you change your perspective on sound as a negative within the walls of your business? There is a very definite vibe that can be produced with the careful curation of sound in different settings, which can be used to your advantage.

The American Society of Heating and Air Conditioning Engineers recommends sound levels between 49 and 58 decibels before noise becomes bothersome to employees. Employees themselves seem to prefer between 48 and 52 decibels to set the tone for the office.

One company that kept acoustics top-of-mind in their newly renovated offices in Warsaw is CEDC, a food and beverage company. Their offices feature wood throughout as a nod to its presence in the making alcohol as wine and whiskey barrels. The reception area is illuminated with a chandelier in the shape of a wave, made up of customized, backlit glass bottles used in one of their products. Just beyond that, a common space with a professional grade bar serves as a gathering place for employees and informal meetings.

Lighting and acoustic panels in geometric patterns that represent ice cubes are consistent throughout the office, and in the departments with side-by-side workstations, circular, bubble-like acoustic paneling is placed on the walls to dampen sound while maintaining the brand's drinks theme. Partitions between workstations give visual privacy but aren't so large as to detract from conversation when it's needed. Private meeting rooms are segregated by glass and plush furniture further holds sound in where necessary in lounge rooms. The wood features throughout a large portion of the building also bear moss as greenery that acts as a sound dampener for both a visual and acoustical design feature.

Sound as a Cultural Facilitator

Sound can become its own personality in the office. White noise in the background, such as that of the HVAC system or the purposeful trickle of a water feature can provide a low-level hum. Even café style chatting has been shown to be beneficial to productivity. (There's even a website that will generate the happy chatter background noise of a coffee shop.) Some environments in the office definitely require a lower volume for those trying to get things done. Some departments in particular need privacy thanks to the handling of sensitive information--HR or Finance come to mind--but others thrive with higher levels of bustle. Think of a Wall Street stock trading floor and you'll know that for certain environments, the noise makes the office and culture, not the quiet. Just as a single voice in a hushed, cavernous library will interrupt people's work, in certain offices where sound is expected--the salesroom or customer service department--noise isn't such a distraction.

Consider your office space in terms of "districts" or "neighborhoods" if you will, where certain sounds are acceptable and encouraged. Teams will need to speak at normal volume without worry of disturbing nearby coworkers interested in keeping their focus. Separating those collaborative areas from the quieter areas is much like a row of bars and eateries located farther from a residential neighborhood so as not to disturb the residents. In this way, you can encourage the work with noise that's acceptable in one environment, and foster a different, quieter, more focused environment in another location in your office.

Don't Deaden or Dampen Sound. Direct It.

The best-laid plans are the ones considered from the beginning of any redesign. It's more costly to correct a noise problem after a renovation is complete than addressing it in the planning process. Here are some ways to ensure you're containing and encouraging the noise in the right places.

Consider department needs. Some departments need privacy, such as those handling sensitive financial or employment information, like HR and Accounting. Place those departments in quieter zones and give the employees options for privacy for conversations that require it. Your sales or customer service departments might be great neighbors, with a connecting area between them for collaboration and conversation. Acoustic separation is ideal for the function of each department.

Sound masking systems, which produce low-level background noise, could be of additional benefit. In the R&D department, coworkers that need to collaborate with each other may not want to be overheard by the whole company. By increasing sound to a consistent level, such as you'd find in a restaurant or coffee shop, you can reduce distractions for people who need these conversations in their workday, while at the same time, covering the nature of their conversation for passersby.

Good sound-masking systems are unobtrusive rather than annoying, so you may need a system that raises or lowers noise automatically as the environment changes, and you may need to experiment with appropriate levels. There are also automatic systems that raise and lower volume for the number of people present. This makes an unobtrusive piece of equipment that much more attractive, not to mention power-saving.

Sound absorption isn't just for wall-to-wall carpeting and drop-ceiling panels anymore. Lots of open offices have exposed ductwork as part of the aesthetic, so covering them with the unsightly popcorn paneling of the 80s just won't do. However, cleverly designed (and even environmentally-friendly) acoustic paneling can add to the atmosphere in a pleasing way. The checkerboard pattern is a common yet effective layout of ceiling acoustic panels, and can also be visually stunning. Wall materials, such as wallpaper or even cork, and mobile partitions and drapery can absorb and redirect sound. Such barriers will interrupt sound waves so they don't travel as far or bleed into the quieter areas you're trying to maintain.

Put your furniture and fixtures to work, too. Large ceiling light fixtures can reverberate sound between work areas and cause irritation. Seating areas with couches, fabrics, and throw pillows can be comfortable places for employees to work as well as keeping with the noise requirements of the work. Floor or desk lamps, strategically placed LED lighting, and lots of natural light eliminates the need for those big fluorescent fixtures that funnel noise through a room. These types of light also open doors for creative decorating, which appeals to new talent. Even signage directing visitors to the right departments can get in on the acoustics act with cloth banners draped strategically throughout the office.

Noise is a natural part of any office. Rather than trying to eliminate it, use it to your advantage to curate the environment and culture that will inspire your employees.

Published on: Apr 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.