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Contact Centers, Green Building, Acoustics

I’m about to combine three topics that aren’t usually talked about at the same time: contact centers, green building and acoustics.

That said, it’s worth doing so. The acoustical design of contact centers is critical to their occupants’ performance and many of the common sustainable design strategies that impact speech intelligibility and noise control in other types of facilities have as strong an impact on them.

Actually, I could argue that the activities taking place within contact centers demand an even higher level of attention to acoustics. After all, the work involves constant verbal communication, both on the phone and in person. Serving customers in real time requires good listening skills, clear communication and attention to detail. Even small mistakes can reduce customer satisfaction and, of course, take time to correct.

The work is certainly demanding and that feeling is only intensified if not supported by the workplace design. But while contact center employees are usually given access to the technology they need to perform their duties, they aren’t typically allocated high-performing workspaces.

These facilities tend to be densely occupied, meaning more noise is generated and more people are within earshot of each other. Workstation partitions are usually lower in order to allow managers to see their teams. And, unfortunately, many green building trends – for example, open ceilings, hard interior materials and alternative HVAC methods – only intensify these already poor acoustic conditions, affecting concentration, privacy and overall comfort. The result can be reduced output, increased errors, absenteeism and turnover – all pressing and costly issues for contact centers.

A green contact center design is possible, but it needs to be planned. So what types of considerations should you take into account?

First, proximity is a key driver of the workstation design. When you have employees whose job it is to talk for the majority of time and they are seated close together, you simply must have a workstation partition that extends above seated head height (60-65 inches) because no other acoustical intervention can replace the effect of a physical barrier at close distances. To satisfy the green goal of daylighting, you cannot simply drop the partitions to 48 inches. You have to top them with 12 inches of glass in order to provide sound isolation without sacrificing visual openness. It’s best if you also plan the workstation configuration to minimize unimpeded line of sight between occupants.

Second, a high level of absorption is necessary to reduce the significant amount of noise created in these spaces. Open ceilings are often included in green building designs, but rob the space of what is usually the largest source of absorption: the tile. If an open ceiling is desired, mount acoustical panels on the deck and use absorptive workstation partitions. In certain situations, you might need to address reflection from walls by affixing acoustical panels to them as well. Also ensure that the inside surface of the workstations, above the work surface, is absorptive in order to help reduce reflection of conversations back into neighbouring areas.

Third, background sound levels in green spaces tend to be lower due to alternative HVAC strategies. While the amount of noise created by occupants is high, the low ‘natural’ ambience means that speech may be clearly heard from afar, which is a common source of distraction for contact center employees. Background sound levels can be controlled with an electronic sound masking system, which uses speakers installed in the ceiling to introduce a sound (often compared to softly blowing air) to cover up offending noises and conversations, aiding focus, privacy and comfort.

Lastly, it’s important to note that as spaces get smaller, attention to acoustical design becomes even more critical. Not only do smaller spaces naturally put people closer together, but the sounds they generate are reflected and contained within a smaller area, requiring even more focus on the mechanical details of the physical barriers, absorption and sound masking. In a sense, green buildings simulate smaller facilities because their floor plates tend to be longer and narrower. The proximity of exterior walls bounces noise back into the space, rather than letting it dissipate over distance.

Green contact centers have to lighten their ecological footprint, but in order to be truly sustainable, they also need to be supportive of the work being done inside of them.

To learn more about acoustics in green contact centers, see my article Green Design & Acoustic Performance of Contact Centers.