An open office environment might create a more collaborative atmosphere. However, according to a Cornell University study, if you don’t address noise issues, the same environment can increase tension and decrease productivity. Low-to-moderate noise doesn’t just come from machines and equipment, but also from conversations and office chit-chat. Despite these risks, there’s much you can do to mask sounds and create a noise-free environment.
Look to the Ceiling
Acoustic ceiling panels absorb sound by converting sound waves into heat. How much sound gets absorbed depends on the material’s noise reduction coefficient rating. A rating of 0.50, which is the minimum for acoustic ceiling panels, absorbs 50 percent of the sound. An NRC rating of 1.00 means the material absorbs 100 percent. James D. Janning of the American Institute of Architects recommends installing dry-felted glass fiber ceiling panels in an open office environment as this material offers the NRC rating -- 0.95 to 1.00 -- necessary for speech privacy.
Implement Sound Masking Measures
Sound masking devices and systems give the office a constant level of random-sequence, low-profile background sounds. They're set loud enough to soften outside noises. According to Janning, effective sound masking levels for an open office are three-to-five decibels louder than the normal surrounding sounds. Although desktop white noise machines may work in a small office, a large office needs a loudspeaker system installed above the office ceiling for optimal masking.
Environments with an abundance of hard surfaces, such as hardwood floors and marble walls, can reduce noise issues with some well-placed plants. According to the business environment specialists at the Ambius Company, plants change room acoustics by reducing sound reverberation time. Plants are most beneficial when they're on or along hard surface areas. The Natural News website recommends one plant for every 100 square foot, and says the peace lily, Philodendron, dragon tree and weeping fig are good choices.
Divide and Create
Concave surfaces -- surfaces that curve inward -- focus reflected sound in one area instead of bouncing and dispersing it in multiple directions as flat convex surfaces do. A few strategically placed padded, fabric-covered dividers not only can reduce sound volumes by up to about 60 decibels, but create semi-private areas for meetings and private conversations.