The Myth of Privacy in an Open-Plan Office

open-plan office

31 Mar The Myth of Privacy in an Open-Plan Office

“It’s the best of both worlds,” says the salesman. “All you need are these little screens, an acoustical tile ceiling, a bit of carpeting and a touch of Muzak and your open-plan office will have all the privacy advantages of a traditional office. And you can rearrange the layout anytime you like. Just move the chairs and desks.”

Ever heard this before? If you chomped on the hook (“all the privacy advantages of a closed office”), you are probably reading this with a certain amount of trepidation. Especially if your building is still under construction.

Privacy between workstations

In the early days of open-plan office design, there was little concern for privacy. The goal was to foster communication and teamwork. But companies saw another advantage: Without the confines of walls and windows, they could fit more desks into a single space. Then some bright promoter decided it might be possible to improve the privacy at individual workstations with an electronic background “masking” system. This was where the problems and the myth began.

Almost overnight, the possibility of achieving privacy became a guarantee. And we have been paying the price ever since: the acoustician, in terms of credibility, and the developer or owner, in terms of unhappy occupants. Meanwhile the myth of privacy in the open-plan office is perpetuated by scores of technical and non-technical articles.

Well, what are the facts?

If the standard for privacy is two people being able to work at adjacent desks and participate in normal conversations without disturbing each other, then achieving privacy is possible.

There are a few requirements though. You need a large enough room, finished with a highly absorbent acoustical ceiling tile, a quality carpet, and properly designed and constructed acoustical screens. In addition, you need to pay attention to department planning, workstation layout, furniture design and lighting. Finally, you require an electronic background masking system that provides a uniform sound field throughout the office, operated at a level of 52 to 55 dBA.

Does this sound good? Easy? Cheap? Well maybe, no and not likely. Many clients balk at the expense of the room finishes, yet the success of their open-plan offices depends on proper acoustical treatments.

The biggest problem, though, is that the background or masking noise level necessary to achieve acoustical privacy between adjacent workstations is totally unacceptable to many workers. While most people can tolerate background noise levels of around 42 to 48 dBA, achieving inter-workstation privacy requires masking levels of 52 to 55 dBA. So for many offices, adequate masking needs to be at least 10 dB higher than the level acceptable for most workers.

Successful for other reasons

At this point, you’re probably saying, “These guys don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve seen lots of successful open-plan offices.” Sure you have, and in fact, we have too. Our acousticians have visited several open-plan offices where we met with happy owners and occupants. We have tested these same facilities and found that privacy between adjacent workstations, a feature often promoted or implied by purveyors of open-plan office furniture, does not exist. For these offices, inter-workstation acoustical privacy isn’t a necessity, and they are successful for other reasons.

With proper design, you can develop a good working atmosphere where acoustical privacy exists between departments. Installing properly designed sound absorbing surfaces (carpet and ceiling tile) reduces the clatter that predominates in poorly designed open-plan offices. The acoustical treatments create a subdued effect in the room, which encourages workers to lower their voices, a factor that helps improve (but not ensure) acoustical privacy.

Acoustical design considerations

Environmental acoustics in an open-plan office are as important as any other major design considerations. To achieve a successful open-plan office, owners should commit at the onset of a project to not only to accept the financial costs of a quality “open-plan package” (i.e., room finishes, masking system, etc.), but also to communicate with the occupants—via seminars, presentations, or newsletters—so they can prepare for their new work environment.

In addition, when developing an open-plan office, the various design teams should collaborate to achieve the best environment possible within the limitations. Here are a few things to remember:

  • A properly designed open-plan office provides a very flexible environment with interdepartmental privacy (with separation of approximately 9 metres or more).
  • Some departments require more privacy (human resources, key executives, legal department, etc.), so they should be located in typical cellular offices. Our experience suggests that approximately 10 per cent of personnel will be unable to accept or work successfully in an open-plan office environment.
  • And lastly, the owner should consider building a Cadillac-quality facility in order to get the best chance for a successful end product.

So, whenever you hear someone extolling the virtues of an open-plan office, don’t leap in feet first. Remember the limitations of the design and proceed with caution. Open-plan offices can facilitate better communication and teamwork, yet a poorly designed open-plan office can be a noisy, uncomfortable work environment. If you want to learn more about workplace acoustical design, contact an acoustician at BKL or have a look at some of our past projects. We would love to work with you to design your next workspace.

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