Achieving Acoustical Equity

Given the intense focus on health and safety as well as the changes in work/life balance precipitated by the COVID-19 outbreak, it is not surprising the pandemic has accelerated the healthy-building movement and ‘people-first’ mindset spearheaded by standards such as WELL and Fitwel. There is burgeoning consensus that buildings need to be designed with deep commitment to the well-being of their occupants.

Effective acoustics are key to healthy buildings. After all, noise is known to provoke physiological stress responses that can negatively impact occupants. The World Health Organization describes it as an “underestimated threat” that contributes to stress, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and diabetes. Hence, WELL and Fitwel take acoustics into consideration; however, it remains a poorly understood indoor environmental quality (IEQ) parameter, and the lowest rated.

Returning to the workplace

Low scores have added significance in today’s climate. Many employees found a silver lining in the ways in which stay-at-home orders enriched their family lives, even as the scope of their work and social lives contracted. As companies start to bring—or attempt to draw—them back to the office, occupant satisfaction is more important than ever. Organizations need to implement strategies that not only keep staff safe and healthy, but also happy and productive enough within their working environment that they actually want to come in.

Amongst the architecture and design community, there is growing conviction these goals must be achieved through concern with ‘equity’—and applied to ‘real-world’ needs such as acoustical privacy, rather than amenities like pool tables, private chefs, and other perks; in other words, it is more a matter of how employees are treated than what they are being treated to.

Firms such as Gensler point out that although employees are enjoying benefits (e.g., more time with family and less spent commuting) while working from home, many are also struggling with less-than-ideal conditions (e.g., poor internet connectivity, shared workspace with children and other family members, noisy neighbors and neighborhoods) that negatively impact their engagement and productivity. Whether an organization wants their office to be occupied fulltime post-pandemic or to serve as a critical part of a hybrid working model, it has the potential to act as a ‘great equalizer’—a shared facility that is specifically designed to support employees’ work and overall well-being.

According to the 2020 Gensler Work from Home Survey, 88 percent of employees would like to return to the workplace in some capacity. One of the primary reasons the 2300-plus participants cite is the need for a quiet, distraction-free environment—a desire echoed by the 32,000-plus people polled during studies Steelcase conducted across 10 countries. It is clear acoustics matter and, therefore, are vital to ensuring employees not only enjoy equal access to the facility itself, but to the IEQ parameters needed to work comfortably and effectively.

But what is ‘acoustical equity’? And how does one achieve it?

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Content coming soon.

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