You Can Have It Both Ways: Sound Masking Lets You Have Your Modern Open Office Design and Speech Privacy

by Tim Hooper, President, The Connectivity Group, Inc.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, some 80 percent of offices these days are “open.”  Open offices generally have the following characteristics: low or no partitions, small or shared workspaces, a plethora of glass walls, and fewer doors and private offices.  Common complaints about open office environments are noise distractions, interruptions, and lack of speech privacy, stemming from the fact that there are fewer walls and partitions to block sound. With so much open space in modern offices, conversations in open areas can be heard by people as far as 100 feet away. Those complaining are not alone – according to a recent survey of over 25,000 workers in over 2000 buildings, lack of speech privacy (i.e. overhearing everyone’s conversations) was far and away the workplace factor open office employees were most dissatisfied with, with nearly 60% of them citing it as a major issue.

But open offices aren’t all bad – after all, there has to be some reason why companies keep building them, right? Facility managers, designers, and architects are rarely trying to make offices boring and drab replications of the office from Office Space – they are trying to make them elegant and functional. The recent trend is away from cubicles and towards common workspaces and areas. Those cubicle walls are coming down, partly because they are ugly, but also because companies are striving to create an environment that facilitates collaboration and transparency. Plus, adding glass walls and taking down partitions allows more natural light to come into the office, and open offices by their very nature give builders blank canvases that allow them to take risks and make creative spaces. These fun, cool spaces can be used as recruitment tools – who wouldn’t want to work in like Google’s new Tel Aviv office that features a slide between floors and a Lego room? 

So where’s the balance? How do you design beautiful, modern, collaborative buildings and workspaces that are acoustically comfortable?  The most effective solution is to install a sound masking solution in the office space. Sound masking is the addition of an unobtrusive background sound into an environment that covers up excess noise in the environment through speakers installed in or above the ceiling.

With sound masking, companies can adhere to their open-office vision while ensuring the finished product is still an acoustically comfortable place to work. We installed sound masking in this beautiful office in downtown Boston to create, in their words, “an open office experiment that actually worked.” This global staffing firm is so happy with their sound masking that they are having us install it in all of their future satellite office renovations. As more offices move to more collaborative and aesthetically pleasing open-office plans, sound masking should continue to be a part of the trend.

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