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Acoustic Design For a Hybrid Work Environment - A Conversation with Andy Vawter from MPS

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

On October 14, 2021, the Knak Group will host an AIA and IDCEC accredited CEU with MPS, our new partner. MPS, located in Richardson, TX, designs, develops, and hand-creates beautiful acoustic panel products. Their team of designers and sound engineers makes privacy simple by designing solutions that reduce unwanted noise through both masking and dampening.

Andy Vawter, SVP at MPS, will offer his expertise on the evolving work place environment in a CEU called, "Acoustic Design For a Hybrid Work Environment." In preparation, Mike Skaar, CEO of Knak Group, had a conversation with Andy. What follows is an edited version of that discussion.

Mike: What is the MPS vision for acoustics?

Andy: For years, we've been opening space up, we've been giving people less and less square footage per individual in an office space. That has ramifications on acoustical issues in the space.

When there are acoustic problems in a space, there tends to be productivity issues and distractions. It makes it harder for people to focus and do their job well.

Something happened about two years ago that just turned the world upside down, right? We're all aware and it kind of changed office life forever, at least for the foreseeable future. You had people working from home, you had flex time and all these different things that just completely changed how people view the office and how people view their jobs.

What we are discovering, though, is work from home is not going to be the only thing forever. But we're also seeing that working in the office is no longer the only thing that we all will do, as well.

The future of acoustics, I think, is very much going to be tied to how we create an environment for people to be productive where they are.

What that means is, what do we do to help them be productive at home? But then those days where they do need to come into the office, how do we create that space that makes it feel very similar to those other environments that they work in?

As a human, we can feel comfortable in any environment we're in doing our job and being productive. A lot of that comes down to how a space is designed, what the plan is for the space, how it's utilized. From my perspective, being an acoustical expert, the challenge is creating the right type of environment at the workplace, with less contrast to a WFH environment.

Because if I'm in a perfectly quiet home office getting stuff done, but the next day, I'm in an open office with 50 other people- because we have meetings that day, or it's my day to be in there for whatever, how do we create that environment so there's less contrast? It can't be so stark of a contract from when I was in my perfectly quiet private office at home to the office.

We can't completely eliminate all those issues, but if you can make that contrast less noticeable, then people are much more engaged most of the time and able to be more productive. Isn’t that what every business wants? I believe the vast majority of workers want that as well.

Mike: Great points Andy. If we were looking at how our industry is going to evolve and change both during and after COVID, are there any observations you'd care to share?

Andy: Absolutely. I think our industry did a fantastic job navigating what, on the surface, looked like a death blow to the industry, right? I mean, everybody went home for pretty much a year or longer. In a lot of cases, in a lot of situations that would just be an absolute death punch. And yet, you saw our industry very quickly adapt to that. A lot of businesses figured out how to help people at home.

How do we create solutions that help businesses bring people back? How do we pivot, so that the stuff that we do is still applicable today? And then tomorrow it changes and we have to continually pivot to that. I know that's what we were doing constantly. We were always evaluating the feedback from customers and end users trying to figure out what their needs are and how we make sure that we're meeting those needs.

I think as an industry, especially those in architecture and interior design, general contractors, and the contract furniture industry, did a pretty good job overall, listening to customers, being creative and constantly being flexible and pivoting. I don't think that's over, I think there's going to be continual pivoting. This past summer, we thought one thing, and here we are, facing a very different world.

We're having to continually adjust and make sure that what we're doing brings value, because that's where it all comes down. I'm a former economics teacher. So, that's a principle that flows, regardless of what industry, whatever you're doing; you have to bring value. That's something I think our industry has really focused on and been successful in. So I'm hopeful that the future, whatever it brings, will continue to see that type of mentality out of our industry.

Mike: So, how do you take all of that information that you've just shared with us and create a CEU?

Andy: The CEU was developed during this time for almost every customer, having some sort of plan to bring people back into the office. So we started informal, just surveying, what's your policy? What are you guys planning to do? Tell us more about what you're doing. That was always our perspective. We don't know if what we're doing makes sense, so what are you guys doing?

Mike: Was your surveying informal or did you use something like Survey Monkey? Was there something you sent out?

Andy: It started completely informal. It really was just, we were getting constant calls from various customers, whether it's a designer, an actual end user or the dealer, saying, “We've got plans to bring our people back and here's what we're doing.” We started meetings internally. What are people saying? What are the customers telling us? We started graphing.

What we discovered was there wasn't a standard way, a mile wide, an inch deep type of thing. Everybody had their own way of figuring out how to navigate this. That helped us understand the common threads as it relates to acoustics because everybody has a different plan for how they're doing it. Some are doing it with A/B days where different people are in the office, others are doing different times throughout the day, others are changing their office layout. Others are doing hoteling, where no one has a private space. Everybody had a different way they were doing it.

We looked at that and said, "Okay, I can't get into what's the right way to bring people back to the office. That's too broad, there's too many things going on. So what can we do?" We started looking at what are the common threads with acoustical concerns, what are the things that we know, regardless of what someone's plan is, that are true when it happens in acoustics? We started to see that the big theme with our customers is contrast.

More than ever, people are working in different acoustical environments. If we can make the contrast less stark from one environment to the next, then people can move forward with their plans for bringing people back. Because, that was what most people were afraid of. We're doing this, but I'm worried that I'm going to get a thousand complaints because of this issue. We already have enough complaints and fears about safety concerns. We didn't want them to have to also be worried about general complaints like, “I don't like being here because it's too noisy. I can't focus.”

So, we compiled what solutions are our best from an acoustic standpoint, to help any business properly design their space for whatever their policy is, whatever their plan is, we can help reduce the contrast between a quiet space and an active space, a noisy space.

Mike: How do the recommendations differ between recommendations maybe for architects or designers or dealers?

Andy: Designers and Architects often have different concerns about how to build a space. Architects tend to look at the overall space that becomes the canvas for which the designer then gets to add their contributions to. Are we following some best practices at creating the best possible starting point for an environment? Because we all know designers are also going to go with where their heart takes them, right? They fall in love with a concept or an idea or a material and they go that way.

So, as an architect, can we design this, giving our designers a little bit more freedom to pick and choose finishes because the space itself is planned out thoughtfully? Some of that has to do with literal space planning, or it has to do with understanding how sound travels.

Our CEU hits a couple different ways that you can make sure to mitigate some issues that come from that, from a build standpoint.

On the other side, designers tend to be much more visual and how is it going to make users feel when they walk into that space. Part of our CEU talks about that and really how to use visual techniques that help with acoustics.

Then there is the dealer. Perhaps the end user changes their plan, right? They change how they're using the space after they've moved in, whether it's COVID related or not. That dealer then has to be able to use those same best practices, but in a little bit different way to help their customer. We try to educate people from all points of view, because I think the better an architect understands what happens to an end user after they move in, it helps them plan better early on.

If a designer understands that they can design for look and feel, but also they can understand acoustic principles behind that, when they have two choices, they’re going to go with one that maybe is a better fit acoustically, but still hits their vision for what they’re trying to do for the space.

A dealer understands, when they walk into a problem, what are some basic things to know to solve those problems? I think that just ultimately helps the people that matter, which are the ones moving into the space and having to then operate after everybody else left. We all built the space, we were finished and we left and went off to another one, someone else has to move in there and actually work. Remembering what it is that helps them with the best possible experiences is really what drives us, what drives this CEU through what we're actively learning right now.

Every day, there are new articles and new information about people in office space and people as it relates to their work environment. We've just been trying to marry the two, what are we learning about that and how does that jive with what we know on the acoustic front. Make sure that we're educating all of our audience on what we know.

Mike: Andy, thank you so much for your time. We are excited to share this incredibly relevant CEU that is literally being made as we speak in the times that we're living in. It's going to be incredibly valuable for anybody who participates and we're so, so honored and excited, and it is accredited! We're absolutely thrilled to be able to bring this to the Knak Groups' universe of architects, designers, dealers, consultants, and everybody who's going to want to participate. Thank you so much.

To attend the CEU on October 14, click the "Register Now" button below.

About Andy Vawter

Andy Vawter specializes in making complex topics simple. As a former high school economics teacher, he knows how to take a difficult topic and make it easy to learn. Andy now solves acoustical problems for a wide range of organizations, and collaborates with architects and designers to best utilize acoustical principles throughout the construction process. He and the team at MPS find ways to creatively improve workplaces by providing various types of design-oriented, acoustical solutions. This experience, combined with his teaching background, allows Andy to deliver educational training for designers, architects and others wanting to better understand how acoustical performance can blend with great design.

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