The corporate landscape has shifted dramatically in recent years, relocating office cubicles to spare rooms and kitchen tables. As customers shift to this new reality, there’s a new soundtrack playing in the background of the workdays. Instead of hearing a neighboring co-worker, they hear the sound of children banging on the door, dogs barking to be let inside, or a partner asking “What’s for dinner?” at one in the afternoon. Sub-par audio quality turns crucial Zoom meetings into a game of interruptions: “Can you hear me?” and “You’re breaking up,” have become the refrain of everyday work-from-home life.  

Sound is the true soul of communication. When it breaks down, everyone is left feeling frustrated and unproductive. Although remote work has its challenges, one of the best things about working from home is the ability to create an office space to the homeowner’s preferences. A high-quality audio experience is essential to their productivity and the ability to collaborate effectively with clients and colleagues. There are technological steps we can take to dramatically improve the home office sound environment.  

Sounding Off  

I frequently hear people complain that their home environment is too noisy for focused work, especially during summer when school is out. When a corporate space is too noisy, we do something about it! There’s no reason not to give home offices the same consideration.  

There’s very little technology can do to compensate for terrible acoustics – see my column on home audio in the Spring issue of Connected Design for more on this subject. A lot of current interior design trends call for hard, highly reflective surfaces: glass, hardwood floors, polished stone, etc. Especially when combined with vaulted ceilings, these materials are a recipe for reverberation, creating a cacophony when even normal activities are taking place outside the office doors. Advise clients on how to incorporate acoustically absorptive materials into the space’s design to make the home environment more conducive to working from home. 

Of course, the least distracting sound is the one that doesn’t reach you. Ideally, the office should have a door the homeowner can close, preferably with a high Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating. Think about the other room apertures as well – what’s the STC rating on any windows? Is the client going to be unable to hold a Zoom call whenever the landscapers visit? Such issues can be mitigated with specialty glass or, at the cost of the natural light, drapes. Acoustically absorptive panels, either inside or outside the office, can also reduce distractions. These days, there are plenty available from marquee brands like Auralex that are beautiful enough to incorporate into the décor of a luxury home; some would even make for a very nice Zoom background. 

In scenarios where customers need privacy as well as a focused work environment, you could also consider leveraging the home’s installed speaker system for sound masking. There was a time when few could imagine having such sensitive professional conversations in the home, but we’re well past that point now. Homeowners should know that a secure and private workspace is achievable at home. 

Is This Thing On?  

The increase in remote working has created a necessity for clear and effective audio when joining video conferences from a home office. If your client is building a home office, make sure they are educated about the difference a quality microphone can make. The right microphone is critical to sounding professional and conveying every nuance and detail during a conference. Built-in laptop mics are categorically not good enough. Laptop microphones are omnidirectional; they pick up each and every noise, echo, and reverb that you and your home make. They can also make the homeowner sound far away compared to high-quality audio.  

Cardioid and hypercardioid microphones are designed to be directional. When positioned properly, they pick up your voice and the nuances of your conversation more effectively. “Properly positioned” is a load-bearing phrase though. If positioned improperly, their sound capture can be even worse than an omnidirectional mic’s. 

For most customers, the “set it and forget it” approach is best. An all-in-one conferencing solution like a videoconferencing sound bar is a great example. Many of these devices use an array of beam-forming microphones to find the talker; capture, mix and send the intended audio; and reject unwanted sound. It doesn’t matter if the customer likes to swap between seated or standing positions, or even pace while they talk. The mic is always in the proper position. 

The right microphone selection depends on the work your client is doing. If they’re frequently participating in industry podcasts or producing video presentations or livestreams from their home office, they may be better off with a cardioid mic on a boom arm. In fact, you may need to discuss whether there’s a need to incorporate line-level sources such as musical instruments into their streams. If so, you’ll need to make sure a USB audio interface that can accept XLR and line level sources is part of the design. 

Please Welcome Our Guest Speaker  

Some folks like it quiet, and some like an intentional soundscape while they work. If your client subscribes to the latter, they should consider installed speakers for their home office space; no one wants to wear headphones all day long, and computer speakers are too tinny and too directional to provide the rich, soothing aural environment the clients is seeking.  

Work from home has finally truly taken hold, leading many homeowners to realize just how much their in-home offices were lacking. Technologies such as environmental sound, beamforming microphones, acoustic treatments, and sound masking, as well as good-quality speaker solutions for an enhanced audio experience can significantly upgrade the work from home experience. Work is the next frontier of home technology design.  

Randy Blanchard is the director of audio products at Vanco.