Five ways to improve the acoustics in your home workspace
Monika PachlaView bio
As a result of the rapid and unexpected changes in 2020, many people had to use their private, domestic domain as a workplace, even though they were often not designed for this purpose. There are many challenges in creating a dedicated and functional work environment at home, which require ergonomic furniture, proper lighting, and so forth. Even when all these elements are achieved, people rarely consider acoustics when thinking of what helps or hinders their personal workplace productivity.
This matters more than ever, as following the pandemic, the business world has dramatically changed. There has been a significant increase in remote working as a medium or even long-term arrangement for many businesses. Some companies have moved to more flexible work practices, seeing the benefits in offering hybrid arrangements including reducing the number of workers in the office each day and reducing the need for office space. There is also a growing preference among workers for this flexible approach. According to a recent McKinsey employee survey most employees wish they could work at home at least three times per week. To make this effective, considering the acoustic ambience of the home workspace is vital.
We know from commercial workplace analysis that acoustics plays a pivotal role in how well people understand each other, especially in environments involving video conferencing, teleconferencing and phone conversations. This means we now need to think about how our homes sound in a whole new way.
When room surfaces are highly reflective, sound continues to reflect or reverberate causing a build-up of the noise level in a space. High reverberation in a room also impacts speech intelligibility and the quality of sound, due to the repeatedly reflected sound waves interfering with the clarity of the original speech.
High levels of background noise (including noise from heating, air conditioning, building mechanical systems, and adjacent noisy spaces) can create annoyance and disruption during calls. Productivity can also be affected due to similar disruptions while concentrating on tasks, resulting in a greater likelihood of misunderstandings to occur. Sound in a room can be absorbed, transmitted, reflected, or diffused by surfaces in the following ways.
- Absorptive materials such as thick drapes, carpet or soft furniture dampen the sound.
- When sound is reflected, it bounces off a surface in a uniform manner.
- When sound is diffused, it scatters rather than being uniformly reflected.
- Sound transmission means that the sound enters other spaces by passing through surfaces.
The goal is to balance sound absorption, reflection, and diffusion, to both make a room sound pleasant and to mitigate sound transmission to (or from) other rooms. Too much absorption can make a room sound dull and unnatural and can even lead to feelings of discomfort if experienced for long periods of time. Too much reflection on the other hand, can make small rooms very noisy. Too much diffusion can make it difficult to determine where the sound source is coming from.
Below are five tips to improve the acoustics in your home office:
1. Choose the most suitable space
The location of the room is one of the most important aspects to consider when setting up your home office – it should be a quiet, cosy room, away from road traffic and other noise sources. If possible, place your home office in a separate room, this will generally enable you to be more focused than if you were working at the kitchen table. Soft finishes such as carpet and drapery will make a difference in how your room sounds, so preferably pick a space which already has good coverage. Moreover, avoid large open spaces, where the sound would be harder to control.
The best way to diffuse the sound waves in a room is to use objects with hard surfaces. Anything like cabinets, plant pots and wardrobes, help us to improve the acoustics by breaking up the sound waves. In other words, the room should not be too empty.
3. Soft materials
Sound waves bounce against hard surfaces such as windows, walls, ceilings, and floors. In order to absorb unwanted sound, it’s best to add ‘soft’ or ‘acoustically absorbent’ elements in the room such as rugs, carpets, drapes, soft chairs and cushions. Typically, the thicker the material, the better the sound absorption. Additional elements such as plants, paintings, or books will help too.
4. Desk location
If you make many calls, it can be beneficial to position your desk in front of a curtain or bookshelf or place an acoustically absorptive desk screen at the back of your desk. This will help to absorb unwanted reflected sound leading to better speech clarity in many cases.
5. Available acoustic products
If you are still not satisfied with the result, there are a large variety of acoustic materials and systems available on the market, such as panels, foams, fabrics and sprays. Advances in technology and sustainable manufacturing processes have made these materials more affordable and readily available. You should ensure manufacturers provide the acoustic performance of their materials or systems in terms of absorption coefficient (αw), sound absorption class (from Class A high performance down to Class E) or noise reduction coefficient (NRC). NRC and αw are stated as single values from 0 (non-absorbent / reflective) to 1 (entirely absorbent).
For a more cost-effective solution, you can create your own acoustic elements. Easily find 'how to' videos on YouTube demonstrating how to make acoustic wall panels with a few pieces of wood, screws, textile and mineral wool.