Open offices spread noise and COVID-19, too

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by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Open plan offices have been fashionable amongst corporate leaders for decades. Why? Not because people like working there; not because people are more productive in them. The real reason executives love open offices is because they’re cheap and changeable at a moment’s notice.

Seriously. Was anyone really fooled by the fashionable designer chairs and by managers’ enthusiastic talk about “teamwork” and “collaboration”? But now there’s the added problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 among people working closely together in those very spaces.

I did some work, including some research, for the U.S. General Services Administration a few years ago on the long-ignored noise problem in open offices. That helped convince office planners that many people really DO NOT LIKE working in open offices—indeed they’re LESS productive there. But it took the GSA–the nation’s largest provider of office workspaces for civilians–to convince the corporate world that the noise/distraction problem is really serious and happy talk from senior leaders doesn’t make office workers more productive.

Now this year—in just the last couple of months—we’ve all become aware of the long-ignored problem of aerosol spread of COVID-19 in offices, classrooms, clubs, restaurants, etc.

So if you see/hear someone talking loudly across the room at your open office, keep in mind that they’re not just annoying you, they’re spreading germs too.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Comments (2)

  1. Steve Orfield

    This is all the more true with the advent of ‘benching’, which means sitting at long open tables. When ‘office landscape’ came to the US in the 70’s, the average workspace was 12′ x 12′, with a freestanding desk, credenza, conference table, 7 chairs and a 5’tall plant, surrounded by 72″ .95 NRC free standing acoustical panels. At 12′ on center, we had speech privacy and social distancing. Now we’re at 2-3′ OC, with no division and no privacy, and we’re in the infection zone constantly. Having done research for most of the major office systems firms, they are well aware of all of this, but saving square footage pays for office systems that most major research suggests are strongly disliked by most occupants.

  2. David M. Sykes

    Hi Steve, thanks for commenting on this. But the “open office” approach began much earlier than the 1970s: the German “Quickborner Group” officially launched the concept in the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright loved the idea. Furthermore, the first open-office “systems furniture” (Herman Miller’s “ActionOffice”) was launched in the mid-1960s. BBN did early work on acoustics in open offices for Owens Corning but the irresistible, perpetual allure of lowering the cost of housing office workers drove the “open office” ideology for far too long. And the “green building” movement did nothing to change that.


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