04 - Mar - 2021

Flexible offices of the future must retain acoustic quality

ABC&D office acoustics article by Ben Hancock, managing director, Oscar Acoustics

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In the COVID-19 era, Health & Safety compliance for offices is being reinvented.  In line with new protocols for hygiene and social distancing, the design and layout of millions of square metres of office space is being rethought across the country.  Flexible use is the only way to cope, but that shouldn’t mean other elements of employee comfort – like acoustics, for instance – are compromised.

As a survey from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) confirmed in April, over a third of workers (39%) are concerned about not being able to socially distance from colleagues when back at work.  Employers are investing in ways to reconfigure large, open-plan offices to protect individuals.  We’re likely to see a rise in modular pods installed within open-plan spaces, and screens partitioning desks.

Office acoustics

What will be the acoustic impact?  By spacing out colleagues to ensure social distancing is maintained, there’s a risk rooms will become more reverberant, impacting on whether people can hear what’s going on.  Screens will muffle normal conversation.  If the overall acoustics are poor, people may be tempted to shout to be heard – not conducive to stopping the spread of germs.

Acoustic spray

SonaSpray K-13 in Radius, Crewe office breakout areas
Credit to Space Invader Design, Overbury & Andrew Smith - SG photography.

Acoustics for flexible use of office space

More than ever, acoustic solutions are essential.  Architectural acoustic finishes on ceilings (sprays or plasters) allow designers to create calm and inviting spaces that ensure employees don’t struggle to hear or be heard.  It matters, because disruptive sounds and reverberations distract and can affect physical and mental wellbeing.  Our survey this year of 2,000 UK workers, found 44% can’t concentrate when it’s noisy at work.  Exactly half believe noise and bad acoustics negatively affects productivity.

The benefit of acoustic spray solutions for ceilings is that they create a healthier aural environment, without compromising interior design.  And there’s good news for office owners adapting to the new normal.  These ceiling treatments allow complete flexibility with Cat A and B configuration and reconfiguration.  Dividing structures such as screens or open-topped pods can be brought in without disrupting the acoustic spray finish applied on the ceiling above.

Taking steps to provide quality acoustics within commercial buildings, will directly improve the comfort and productivity of occupants as they return to work.  Simultaneously for the building owner, progress can be made towards meeting the WELL Building Standard®, and other essential wellbeing and sustainability design certifications.

WELL recommends the use of acoustic materials that absorb sound ‘to support concentration and reduce reverberation’.  As such, ‘sound reducing surfaces’ are listed in the WELL V2 accreditation document, which confirms that two points are awarded to buildings that have undergone a specialist treatment, such as an acoustic finish.

Flexible, healthy, attractive workspace will be in demand

Commercial property giant JLL has poured cold water on the theory that offices will become obsolete because of the pandemic.  Its latest report states:

“The function of the office will continue to evolve, accelerating trends which emphasise the importance of collaboration and innovation to employee productivity.”

There’s recognition that from an employee perspective, the office provides a place for face-to-face interactions which technology struggles to replicate.  Even after the recent success of working from home, employees still state they would like to be in the office for the majority of the week.

Pictured: SonaSpray K-13 grey throughour Investec offices. Investec offices. Credit to TP Bennett & BW Workplace Experts. 

SonaSpray for office acoustics

Offering calm, acoustically comfortable, healthy buildings is now more important than ever.  JLL’s report The Impact of Sustainability on Value makes it clear that corporate buildings will be easier to lease, if they have achieved certification for wellbeing and sustainability measures. 

Having analysed leasing activity for New Grade A office buildings in central London, the research found those with a BREEAM rating of ‘very good’ or better achieved higher rents than those without a rating.  The average rental premium on non-rated buildings over the last three years was around 8%.

As the UK Government relaxes the most stringent measures put in place to protect the public, there will be ongoing hygiene and social distancing protocols to manage, to ensure everyone continues to feel safe, even when the threat of coronavirus infection has subsided.  Terms like ‘isolation zone’, ‘sanitisation station’ and ‘physical distancing’ are not going to disappear overnight.

It’s vital that as office space is re-invented, the term ‘acoustic design’ isn’t drowned out. Noise has been proved to be a risk factor of physiological and psychological health.  Therefore, creating a high-quality acoustic environment for people at work should remain a key consideration.

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