It may seem counter-intuitive however typically our offices are becoming quieter places, at least environmentally. This is due to better acoustic separation from the outside world and more efficient internal machinery such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), printers & computers servers.
In turn, as the background noise in a workplace become quieter normal conversation can appear louder in comparison. Increasingly, these “loud conversations” are distracting to other staff.
Of course this issue is exacerbated by the modern office trend to reduced partition separation between desks (Agile and Open plan offices) and exposing thermal mass (concrete and masonry) in an effort to reduce energy costs. Both these trends are leading to reduced acoustic separation and reduced soft furnishings which provide acoustic absorption.
There are typically 3 solutions to noise problems in an enclosed space:
The first and most obvious solution is acoustic separation or blocking. This essentially would mean a rewind to the traditional office style with separate office and/or high partition that block the large majority of noise moving through the space. Whilst, typically the most effective acoustic solution it causes additional cost in HVAC, lighting and egress/access.
Secondly, there is acoustic absorption, this would typically require soft furnishings, acoustic baffles and special wall and ceiling treatments. However absorption tends to only reduce sound reflections or noise from distance, they have little to no effect on direct and close noise sources.
Finally, there is masking or raising the noise floor. In the same way two people talking at the same time mask each other and make it difficult the distinguish either, noise can be added to the office environment, artificially raising the background noise and thereby lessening the perceived loudness of normal conversations.
Interestingly, many office workers will experience themselves and colleagues taking matters into their own hands by wearing headphones and listening to music. Thereby masking the office acoustically speaking.
This personal adaption to this environmental problem is a simple and effective solution and while there continues to be a lack of impetus to facilitate alternative options the trend of personal adaption of the local work environment will become more normalised, at least in this author’s opinion.