Activity-based design and acoustics at the workplace designers’ office

Practising what they preach

When you walk into Oktra’s new head office, you know immediately something is different. The design team here have struck a unique balance of buzz and serenity and created an inspiring workplace experience.

If Oktra couldn’t get it right, who could? They are, after all, workplace designers creating effective spaces for knowledge workers – a total of 85,000 people and counting.

Design Director, Nic Pryke, took me on a tour of their office and explained the processes involved.

An example of activity-based design in action

Led by Nic, the Oktra design team understand the need for the workplace to be stimulating for some and calming for others. They have overcome the difficult challenge of balancing open-plan design with adequate and appropriate areas for concentration and privacy.

Oktra took an activity-based-design approach and concentrated on the people who actually work in the space, the tasks they perform and their activities.

Much of their workforce are not desk-based. They have 160 people and 90 desks. They allowed 58 sq. ft. per person to achieve this density. The workplace needed to be completely agile. Nic explained further:


“By creating this agile workforce, we were able to take advantage of 30% of desks being unoccupied at any one time, so we eliminated them for efficiency while still creating a sense of space. In the way it’s been designed, you get a sense of a much larger office where people have freedom to move.

“Essential to this is a carefully balanced range of space in the office, all with access to digital information and a robust wireless network. We have a large creative department, as well as sales and financial support functions. There is a wide mix of introverts and extroverts, so we have spaces to retreat to and spaces to collaborate and share insights.”

Acknowledging and tackling acoustics from the start

Nic talked about the long-standing problem of acoustics in open-plan offices and how they tackled it:

“First, we acknowledged it was going to be an issue. There was a particular concern for reducing disturbances during tasks requiring concentration. We prioritised the acoustics and made provisions financially. We took it seriously.”

Oktra involves acoustic consultants in the early design phases on many projects, including their own head office:

“They produced the calculations to ensure the physics of the spaces were tackled correctly and then sized and upholstered the ceiling islands and baffles to our design.”

All the areas of the offices have been treated acoustically – but all are different. Nic explains:

“For example, in the agile social space, it was about reducing clatter such as impact sounds and kitchen noises. In the desk area it was about reducing disturbances.

“We recognised it was people talking that caused the biggest problems. We have a good degree of sound-absorbing materials. This is particularly important because we Skype and conference call a lot, so our conference rooms were a big concern.

Carpets add absorption in the desk area at Oktra
Carpets add absorption in the desk area at Oktra

“We have a lot of glass too, so we balance this with additional absorption. Where the desks are, we have carpet but we didn’t want to do this in the agile hub because we have to clean, so we used a woven vinyl. Areas of ceramic and wood are not in locations that will directly affect workers. We’ve identified one or two cellular spaces that we keep acoustically private using double glazing, sealed doors, absorption in the room and vertical baffles between the top of the partitions and the soffit. We also made sure none of the services penetrate the partitions, individual fan coil units service each room.

“Another important aspect for us was to not interrupt the light and openness. Height-adjustable desks have also been used. This creates a variation in sound sources to help break up the speech propagation.”

A nervousness that was turned on its head

How important was it for Oktra to have a good acoustic solution?

“It was a top three priority, there was genuine nervousness about everyone working in an open-plan office, ” Nic said.

“Feedback is that people are not disturbed in the way they thought they would. The acoustics are not creating an environment that inhibits people from working. People have a choice of where they can go.”

And how do people like their new working environment at Oktra Head office?

“We’ve done a soft post-occupancy evaluation, and had good feedback. We used to play music – we used it as a way to mask sound – people tend not to play music now,” explained Nic.


This post was written by Paige Hodsman, our UK office acoustics and psychoacoustics specialist, follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn .


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