Managing acoustics for law firms’ open plan offices.

It’s not a new issue but it’s certainly one undergoing renewed interest. As the open plan office has achieved ubiquity in the commercial world and the technologies and working styles we use have expanded, the issue of acoustic management has become even greater.

For law firms it’s a particular consideration. They present a calm, professional image and perhaps more importantly, deal with sensitive and private issues on a daily basis. For these organisations acoustic management in an open plan office is as much about maintaining privacy as it creating an environment where employees can work productively, without unnecessary distraction.

In simple terms, it’s about instilling the right behaviours in employees and putting some common sense rules in place, such as avoiding unnecessary or inconsiderate noise. That means avoiding shouting to colleagues a few desks away, managing the volume of phone rings and moving ‘impromptu’ chats to meeting spaces if they look set to become lengthy.

But these changes can only do so much. If you’ve got 40+ people working in an open plan office environment you will need some help to manage sound effectively.

We’ve just finished the office interior design and fit-out of a 40,000 sq ft open plan office environment for Shoosmiths, a top 40 law firm, in Birmingham. Prior to the move their team had been split across two floors and had long outgrown the space. Their move to 2 Colmore Square was about giving the business a more professional environment, room to grow and room for staff to work together on one floor.

With 180 legal staff and a space which will accommodate 255 people at its peak, acoustic management was a serious consideration for Shoosmiths from the outset. It led to us using an unprecedented combination of sound absorption and masking techniques and products to reduce noise, echo and reverberation. These techniques were as much about building methods as they were the furniture and finishes within it.

Slab-to-slab partitioning, which goes from the concentrate floor to the ceiling, was used to build sound reduction into the layout of the space and cross-talk attenuators were used to prevent noise travelling through air conditioning units. A sound masking system was also installed. Sound masking is the addition of a familiar sounding background sound, used to ‘cover up’ noise and prevent one person’s conversation being heard by many. It’s one of the most effective forms of noise suppression and we combined it with a sound-absorbing ceiling for maximum effect. The client suite’s 15 meeting rooms feature double glazed walls and doors to ensure maximum privacy.

But not all law firms are about to embark on a major office move or refurbishment project. For those practices keen to make some changes to their existing environment, the increase in sound absorbent finishes and office furniture is good news.

For Shoosmiths we used a variety of contemporary office furniture with sound absorbing finishes and acoustic artwork to continue the theme and give a real ‘boot and braces’ approach to acoustic management. High-backed meeting pods and private phone booths help to maximise privacy, reduce sound and create visual interest in the space too.

Open plan offices are fasts becoming the norm, in part because it allows more value to be extracted from every square foot of space and because we now work in a more collaborative and collegiate way. Shoosmiths is the perfect example of what can be achieved from an acoustic management point of view in an open-plan space, with effective office interior design. We brought together building methods, systems and office furniture to create an integrated solution.

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