Workplace Acoustics

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Acoustics in the workplace is big news. As business consolidates into smaller, more open and flexible workspace, the acoustics are playing an ever more important role in enhancing productivity, privacy and worker morale.

It's not as simple as controlling high levels of noise either. Overly quiet workspace is bad news too as conversations are too easily overheard. 

Workspace acoustics can be broken down into 3 main elements - it's as easy as ABC!

A - Absorption controls reverberating sound. In modern workspace with smooth, shiny surfaces of glass, plasterboard and concrete, sound has nowhere to go and builds up quickly to often unhealthy levels. Using acoustic panels, fabrics, carpeting and acoustic ceilings, reverberation is controlled.

B - Blocking sound using partitioning or moveable screens to create cellular offices, quiet rooms and meeting rooms or to contain other areas of noise production like cafe areas etc

C - Cover is the level of ambient or background sound in the space. Sound masking technology is used to control the sound level and sound spectrum to cover speech frequencies accurately.

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A and B are well known and designed into most of the latest fit-out projects but on their own simply reduce noise and create quiet space. The resultant, overly quiet open-plan workspace is unproductive as workers constantly interrupt each other. Also, when ambient sound levels are too low, partition walls around private offices/meeting rooms fail to keep conversation private.

For many, ‘a nice quiet office’ on the surface of it desirable, however, unfortunately, a quiet workspace is often even worse than a noisy one

The problem is the effect ambient sound has on speech intelligibility. Rather than simply hearing the 'noise' of others in the workplace, speech intelligibility exposes the detail of a conversation.

Imagine you're in a quiet library attempting to study. The slightest sound against a quiet background stands out. A conversation between others will distract you from your focus as you can easily hear the detail of that conversation which is impossible to ignore. Alternatively, imagine you're in a busy cafe. With a high level of background sound, even the conversation next to you is inaudible.

In today's workspace, as some collaborate in close proximity to those in quiet focus, managing ambient sound level is crucial for productivity, privacy and morale.

The effects are dramatic. With corrected, optimised ambient sound in open-plan, workers can relax into their work in the knowledge their conversations with colleagues or customers are not overheard and judged by their peers.

Partitioned space is private and can be more flexible as heavily engineered full height construction is no longer required as sound masking takes up the shortfall.*

In short, there’s a buzz about the place, sound masking creates atmosphere and acoustic comfort where workers can get done what they came to work for.

Most of Australia's latest great buildings including Barangaroo International Towers, 275 Kent Street, Sydney, Darling Square, Sydney, 100 Mount Street, North Sydney, ANU -Mathematical Sciences Building, Monash University - Learning & Teaching Building are using sound masking technology to provide the high performing space Australia's most successful businesses require.

45dB Systems are Australia’s experts in sound masking. Contact us to find out more

Soundmasking vs Soundscaping

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We have been asked about soundscapes quite a lot recently, so I thought it would be useful explain when they should be considered. “The soundscape is the component of the acoustic environment that can be perceived by humans” (Wikipedia) In our terms consisting of sounds from nature such as running water, wind blowing and/or animal sounds. Although it’s a standard, built-in feature of our system, it should be used with caution.

Sound masking, a technology which has evolved from the first white noise systems in the 1950’s to the very accurate, multi-zonal, adaptive systems we use today have one thing in common - they are designed not to be consciously ‘heard’ by the user. The unobtrusive, non-distracting nature of sound masking is deliberately similar to air conditioning so the occupant of the space is not aware of it.

Soundscaping is useful in certain circumstances. In audibly isolated spaces such as cafe or breakout and relaxation areas additional sounds can add character. If you imagine having a coffee in the office cafe area, it’s obviously a cafe within the office but having used all the practical and visual cues - a real espresso machine and cafe furniture all that’s needed to complete the atmosphere of that place is the sound. With the addition of background cafe sound perhaps a real cafe or just music you can imagine the enhancement to the overall concept. In relaxation zones, the design may suggest how you might use the space but overlaying natural sound will only enhance it for your daily meditation.

The problems occur when you use these sounds throughout the open-plan or cellular office/meeting space. Sound masking increases productivity in open-plan by increasing the ambient sound level (in line with AS2107) to decrease speech intelligibility. The less detail of other conversations you hear, the longer you can stay focused and productive. Sound masking provides this benefit without the user being aware of it. If the sound used is that of a river running or wind blowing no matter how sophisticated its construction, it eventually becomes irritating to at least some of the occupants leading to negative feelings which spread quickly throughout the organisation. This is the fundamental no-go for ambient sound management and very high risk strategy for any customer attempting to create a healthy and productive workplace.

In cellular space, low level sound masking is used to increase confidentiality by improving the effectiveness of the ceiling and partition walls (often enabling the use of floor to ceiling partitioning only, rather than more expensive slab to slab building - see our post about ANU in Canberra where significant savings where made on the fit-out) Sounds from nature are clearly irrelevant here.

In summary, sound masking is a necessary part of a working environment to decrease distraction between workers and increase confidentiality of conversation in cellular space. Soundscaping is a useful addition to this for non-work locations and should not be considered for the entire workplace.

The Silent [Productivity] Killer

The demands on corporate workspace have undergone a revolution in the last decade and building and fit-out design has changed to adapt very well on the whole. However, a new  silent killer has emerged and it's killing productivity without anyone knowing it.

Buildings are are being built better and are quieter or to be more specific, ambient or background sound levels in the resulting office space are becoming much lower.

When ambient sound is low, intelligibility of speech is high and conversations are heard more easily. If you mix that with an activity based working (ABW), flexible working culture which encourages collaboration anywhere at anytime, productivity of those in individual focus takes a nose dive as they are constantly interrupted. Higher ambient sound levels reduce the intelligibility of speech and although adjacent workers normally hear local, relevant team-chat, conversations further away are not intelligible and do not distract.

The simple answer to the problem is to introduce ambient sound artificially using sound masking. Using this technology, in particular the latest evolution Sound Conditioning, ambient sound levels automatically adjust to optimise speech privacy by accurately delivering sound to mask specific speech frequencies. This sound self-adjusts depending on the level of activity in the space. To you and I, it's just like the sound of airconditioning!

Sound Conditioning is now the norm for innovative workspace in Australia. Buildings such as the Barangaroo International Towers, Suncorp's new Shelley Street premises, CBA's Darling Square, Westpac's 275 Kent Street and the latest CLT Accenture building on Hickson Road in Sydney have all embraced this new technology.

Have a look at 45dB Systems new video (below) which explains some of the discomfort quiet workspace creates and how this can be resolved and contact us for more information here.

Soundmasking saves time and money

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Using sound conditioning not only manages speech privacy which decreases distraction between workers in open-plan it also allows acoustic consultants to re-imagine standard fit-out methods for cellular space.

If there is no control over ambient sound in given workspace, modelling and educated guesswork have to be relied upon to determine what level of ambient sound will be provided by external sources (traffic etc) and construction sources (plant, air conditioning etc). In light of the unpredictability of these elements, in order to guarantee a partition wall will provide adequate privacy it must be built to 'catch all' of those possibilities and must be built slab to slab to a high standard.

Our sound conditioning systems 'lock-in' ambient sound to any spectrum (to mask speech frequencies) and to a decibel level required by the Australian Standard AS2107.

By doing this, progressive acoustic consultants WSP, were able to specify the partitioning on this project for ANU from the floor to the suspended ceiling only negating the need to build above the suspended ceiling into the plenum. This was not only a significant saving on the build cost but also a made for a much more streamlined fit-out.

As ambient sound increases, the partition rating is decreased

As ambient sound increases, the partition rating is decreased


45dB Systems can solve your acoustic issues and make saving on your project.

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Call us for more information 1300 494 791