How Sound Masking Technology Boosts Workplace Productivity and Confidentiality

Let me paint an all too familiar scenario:

Bill works in an office environment. His co-worker next to him is on the phone. Bill has a report due but can’t concentrate because he hears every word of his neighbor’s conversation. On the other side of Bill is another co-worker who taps her foot constantly. These distractions are having a negative impact on Bill’s ability to be productive.

Here’s another one:

Susan waits in the reception area for an appointment with her doctor. She is within earshot of the reception desk where the staff are discussing the health record of a Mr. Jones. Susan wonders if Mr. Jones is aware that his private information has been shared with her.

In both scenarios, the unintended consequences are obvious – loss of productivity and confidentiality. Unfortunately, these situations are all too common.

Open office environments have been the norm for many years and now collaboration spaces are becoming a popular trend in the workplace too. And while both settings might offer better productivity for those participating, there are still those who need to work privately with noise reduced to a minimum in order to complete their work tasks.

University of Sydney researchers Dr. Jungsoo Kim and Dr. Richard de Dear discovered that noise privacy is the number one complaint among cubicle workers and open-plan employees. 60% and 50% respectively described it as a major issue.

As humans, we can’t ignore the conversations taking place nearby, even when we try. It’s just simply the way our mind works. Words are spoken – there is a sender and a receiver. And sometimes, we are the unintended and unwilling recipient. Our brain’s natural instinct is to attempt to comprehend these messages, whether they are intended for us, or not. We just simply can’t block them out, even if we wanted to.

Architectural and interior design trends contribute as well. Walls have come down, open spaces are now the norm. Carpeted rooms are gone in favour of hard surfaces in public spaces, like glass and concrete. They look great, but are not conducive to the negative unintended consequences of noise. Aesthetics always trump the invisible – sound.

There are some obvious common sense solutions on how to reduce noise distractions and preserve confidentiality in work spaces and public environments. Some people choose to work offsite, others will try turning a conference room into a quiet zone, and still, many others use noise canceling headphones.

Alternatively, we can put up walls to block sound, or use more carpet and fabric around the office to absorb it. But what if we didn’t have to make complicated and expensive changes to the environment? What if, instead, we covered or “masked” the conversation next to us by adding an additional element that makes the noise distraction unintelligible? We would still be able to tell that a conversation is taking place nearby, but we just wouldn’t be able to hear or discern the words spoken. It would be muffled instead. This is sound masking and it is a clever solution that deserves consideration.

So what exactly is sound masking? I admit, prior to joining Backman Vidcom, I had never heard of sound masking. I didn’t really understand how it worked until I actually saw it in action (as you can imagine, we have it throughout our office here). In essence, small speakers (called emitters) release an ambient noise into the office space. The noise is soft and sounds much like HVAC or air conditioning, but you don’t really notice it unless you’re specifically listening for it. The noise can be altered to various levels determined by the application required and the workplace dynamic involved. And there’s an entire science behind how it is deployed. We don’t just randomly install the emitters anywhere and everywhere. That wouldn’t make sense. Instead, there are design considerations based on the space configuration and behavioural patterns by those that use the environment. Our technicians use devices to measure and calculate the decibel level of the sound emitted in the masking process against the distraction noise, so that the application is optimized at specific locations. The emitter should produce a noise that is subtle, yet effective. The sound masking should never be a distraction on its own (if it is, then you have an incorrect design or solution; or possibly both).

Here is some feedback from a client who recently benefitted from a sound masking solution:

“I can still hear the people in the cubes around me (which is good, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to ask them questions) but the sounds and voices from other cubes are pretty faint now. You can hear them, but they’re not really loud enough to be distracting. Plus, you can’t really make out what people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity are saying – the sound masking makes it hard to make out individual words.”

That’s the key. While sound masking technology doesn’t eliminate noise distraction completely, it does reduce it to an acceptable level. Research shows that it ultimately boosts general acoustic comfort, productivity, as well as protect speech privacy. It also happens to be an affordable and pretty much invisible solution to help workers feel more comfortable in the office, without prohibiting collaboration or communications.

And, who knows? Sound masking just might help Bill meet his report deadline or prevent the staff at the doctor’s office from disclosing Mr. Jones’ private information to Susan.

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