Providing the proper level of acoustical and visual privacy in a workplace setting is often difficult to achieve. Every user has a different threshold of privacy vs. social needs. Some workers can effectively perform “head-down” tasks while hearing nearby conversations and seeing co-workers pass by their workstations while others performing those same tasks require complete isolation in a closed room. Different job descriptions sometimes require privacy with specific job tasks during part of the day while the rest of the day is spent working with fellow team members. There is not a one size fits all solution.
One design trend is the lowering of workstation panels and the addition of more glass to workstation panels and office walls. This trend increases access to natural daylight, which is a “green” design feature, and creates a more open work environment. This trend also adds to visual distraction and the sense of increased accessibility to coworkers. Every time you are visually distracted from completing a “head-down” task, your brain has to reboot and start all over again to concentrate on the task at hand.
What I have found, while designing office space over the past 35 years, is that there are a number of things that you can do to provide some flexibility in the workplace to meet the general acoustical and visual privacy needs for most individuals so that they can remain productive while performing those heads-down tasks and communicating over the phone. Here are some things to consider:
- Provide a variety of work environments with varying levels of acoustical and visual privacy that are unassigned, shared spaces. This especially works well in a space that has a wireless computer network so that you can bring your laptop with you. Years ago, Steelcase offered a 6’ by 8’ high-wall work pod called the Personal Harbor. You can create the same environment by creating small, closed offices with doors that have a work counter and sound-absorbing, acoustical wall surfaces that can be used for heads down work or sensitive phone calls. Sometimes these small rooms have frosted glass hinged or sliding doors so you can see if the room is occupied without having too clear a view that might create distraction.
- If you have the funds to do so, you could consider electrically charged glass, such as SwitchLite. With the press of a button the glass goes from clear to translucent, giving the users of the room a higher level of privacy. This material is pretty expensive, averaging $200 per square foot installed.
- Consider a sound masking system. Digital sound masking systems are usually located above the ceiling and create a hushing sound that masks the frequency level of the human voice. It makes nearby conversations unintelligible so that you can’t hear the specific words that are being spoken and turns those nearby conversations into general background noise. They are so sophisticated that they can be adjusted to mask predominantly male or female voices. They can be remotely controlled by a facilities manager. One best practice is to put them in both the open and closed areas so that you don’t notice the difference as you move from open to closed office space.
If you have any acoustic or visual privacy issues in your workplace, I would be happy to provide you with some complementary suggestions to solve your problems. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Richard Fanelli, AIA, CFM, IFMA Fellow