A Complete Guide to Soundscapes and the Office

Posted by Panelscreens on 24th Aug 2022

A Complete Guide to Soundscapes and the Office

What is a soundscape?

A soundscape is the environment containing all the sounds around us. Just like a landscape contains features such as mountains, hills, and trees, a soundscape contains all the elements of sound that come together to create an acoustic environment, like conversation, equipment, air conditioning, movement, traffic.

Though a soundscape is no doubt influenced by the source, frequency, and volume of a sound, the size, shape, and furnishings of a space also play a major role in its resonance and distribution, which ultimately affects the overall manifestation of the soundscape.

What does creating a soundscape mean?

Creating a soundscape is about more than just soundproofing. It means using tools and techniques to reduce background noise and echo, and balance ambient noise to create a comfortable acoustic atmosphere.

The optimum soundscape differs depending on the environment, so it’s vital to consider the needs of the people using the space. For example, in a meeting room, the priority might be privacy, whereas in a foyer, controlling echo may be the most important aspect to consider.

For an open plan office, the ideal soundscape is one that allows for focused work whilst facilitating natural levels of conversation and movement.

How can a soundscape enhance workplace wellbeing?

Sound is a large component of our environment, and it can have a huge impact on our health and wellbeing, so it makes sense that improving the soundscape around us could be beneficial for our wellbeing.

We know that being in a noisy environment can negatively impact both mental and physical health. Continued exposure to loud noise can result in higher levels of stress, as well as hearing issues such as tinnitus loss of hearing.

Well-designed soundscapes aim to combat this, and to positively enhance the atmosphere of a workplace through reducing exposure to harmful noise and creating a more comfortable acoustic environment.

With more of the workforce becoming remote, carefully curated office soundscape is more important than ever in maintaining morale for on-site employees, and it’s likely to be a major deciding factor for those engaged in hybrid working.

Biophilic Soundscapes

In interior design, there has been a recent shift towards biophilic design, which aims to create a connection with the outdoors by incorporating elements of nature into design, for example using more plants and greenery, increasing sunlight, and embracing natural and raw materials. This has been shown to have many benefits, including lower stress, reduced sickness and absenteeism, and a more positive outlook.

But biophilic design isn’t limited to the visual aspects of design. Nature sounds have been shown to decrease agitation and anxiety and improve stress recovery.

A recent experiment from the BBC offered a way for listeners to immerse themselves in nature through soundscaping. Soundscapes for Wellbeing aims to help listeners experience the healing power of nature and enjoy the benefits of a natural environment::

“The perspective and space to think that music and nature offers couldn’t be more important for our mental well-being, and offers something genuinely meditative and restorative.”

How can soundscapes improve productivity?

Whilst the theory behind open plan offices is that they improve productivity and foster more collaborative work through ease of communication, the reality is that this rarely works.

High levels of background noise can make it extremely difficult to concentrate, and even intermittent noise can cause a lot of distraction. In fact, the typical office worker only gets 11 minutes of work done in between each interruption, and noisy distractions cause a 66% drop in concentration and performance.

Studies show that working in a comfortable environment can improve workplace productivity by up to 20%. Employees are healthier and happier when working at their preferred level of acoustic comfort, and reducing noise in the workplace increases the ability to focus by almost 50%, so companies that pay attention to soundscaping will no doubt benefit from higher productivity.

How to create ambient soundscapes in your office

Reduce background noise

The first step in creating a soundscape is eliminating unwanted noise. Although some level of background noise is expected in a busy office, consistently high levels can create a very uncomfortable environment.

Large, solid objects such as sofas, bookcases, and other furniture can help to divide the space into smaller zones and block sound from travelling across large, open spaces.

Using sound absorbing furnishings such as rugs, blankets, and cushions are great for improving the sound quality in open plan offices. These materials work like insulation to absorb sound waves, which helps to soften harsh noises.

Looking for more information on managing noise levels? Check out our blog, 3 Easy Ways to Reduce Background Noise.

Reduce echo and reverberation

Imagine a basketball. On a hard surface, like concrete, it will bounce easily, but on grass, it may not reach the same height, and on softer surfaces, like carpet, or foam, it may not bounce at all. The softer the surface, the more energy is absorbed from the ball. Sound works just like this; sound waves contain energy which is reflected from hard, flat surfaces.

In areas with empty walls, whiteboards, large windows, or glass panels, sound is reflected more often, which causes it to last for longer. This is called reverberation, and when the sound is reflected several times, it can cause an echo. In busy places, this can quickly add to the level of background noise and make it difficult to hear clearly.

Sound absorption is important for areas which are prone to reverberation, such as rooms with high ceilings or glass panels. Sound absorbing materials and decorations, such as acoustic moss or specially designed acoustic lighting take in some of the energy of the sound wave, preventing it from being reflected and improving the clarity of the sound.

Another option is to redirect the natural transmission of the sound. For example, speakers close to corners are more likely to cause echo, so moving them away from a corner will improve the overall acoustics of a room.

Sound proofing

If sound absorption is like insulation in a home, soundproofing would be the walls. Adding layers of soundproofing material to flooring or walls will totally block sound and prevent it from passing through.

However, when creating a soundscape, it’s important not to focus too much on just reducing noise, as too quiet an office may actually prohibit communication.

Sound Masking

Sometimes, it can be difficult to completely block or absorb sound. Low-level ambient noise can be used to provide a base level of neutral background noise which masks more annoying sounds.

This can be done using white noise machines, music, or other ambient sounds. When designing a soundscape, it’s important to consider the atmosphere you want to curate. Gentle, peaceful tones are best; well-crafted music and sound has been shown to be 16% more calming than typical office ambience.

However, individual preferences can vary, and over time, white noise or repetitive music can become monotonous, so whilst this may work for foyers, waiting rooms, and common areas, it may not be as effective in larger open plan offices.

What can I do to improve soundscapes in different areas?

Like many design features, a great soundscape is invisible to most. It’s most notable when it’s absent, like in a shared workspace where it’s difficult to hold a conversation, or in a meeting room with no privacy. A soundscape should be curated to enhance the environment, so it’s important to consider the needs of the people using the space, first and foremost.

Hallways, entryways, and break rooms

In areas with lots of foot traffic, it’s difficult to manage the sound by changing the layout or adding furniture and decorations. Acoustic Wall Panels are a low-cost, space-saving solution. These Acoustic wall panels are designed to absorb up to 45% of direct sound, so they are perfect for managing noise levels in busy areas.

Meeting Rooms

High ceilings produce echoes, which amplify and distort sound within a room. Acoustic ceiling panels are specially designed to improve the acoustic qualities of a space by absorbing sound from an adjusted distance. This reduces echo and reverberation, making a more comfortable acoustic environment.

Open plan workspaces

One of the main annoyances for employees in open plan offices is background noise. Wall baffles are acoustic wall tiles that are filled with acoustic foam. They come in a range of colours and fabrics, and absorb up to 85% of general noise at a range of frequencies, making them one of the easiest and most stylish ways to integrate sound absorbing features into your workplace.

A vital consideration in soundscaping is the dynamic aspect of sound. In a workplace, each individual will have different needs, which could change depending on the day, or even the hour. Acoustic desk dividers and freestanding acoustic panels can be used to create smaller areas for focused work, and to control the transmission of sound throughout the office as needed.

Private Cubicles

Acoustic privacy booths are an excellent way to curate your soundscape to the needs of your employees or clients. These pods ensure perfect sound isolation from both inside and outside, providing a way to allow privacy without renovating.

What To Remember When Designing Your Soundscape

Sound is an integral part of everyday life; most of us don’t want to avoid all background noise completely, but rather manage it to create an inviting and productive space.

Being intentional about the type of sounds in your office can elevate it from an intense and overwhelming space to a comfortable environment where focus and communication are easier. Using a mix of sound absorption, soundproofing, and sound masking techniques can help you to achieve the right soundscape for your workplace.

Looking for ways to create a comfortable, productive soundscape for your office? See our range of acoustic furniture and decorations for soundproofing and absorption.