In our last newsletter, we featured an article titled “Can You Hear Me” where we focused on the importance of microphone selection and placement. This issue, we are turning that idea upside down to discuss the importance and value of Speech Privacy and Sound Masking Systems.
Sound masking may be one of the most misunderstood technologies offered by audio visual and communications vendors. It is a common belief that the purpose of sound masking systems is to provide background sound that overpowers conversational speech. The earliest sound masking systems introduced in the 1960’s did just that. The problem was that the noise used was so loud that it actually became a distraction in and of itself. The true purpose of sound masking isn’t to overpower conversational speech, but to make it unintelligible. The introduction of noise into an architectural environment at a level that is low enough not to be a distraction, but loud enough to interfere with the ability of those in casual proximity of a conversation to understand what is being said. This is accomplished by introducing audio frequencies that target those of human speech.
There are two clear benefits to sound masking systems. The first is maintaining confidentiality. In the 1960’s Mel Brooks television series Get Smart, Max and the Chief would enter the Cone of Silence to keep their conversation confidential. Get Smart may have spoofed both spies and technology, but it foretold of the idea of using technology to provide speech privacy. Today we can place sound masking emitters outside of conference rooms, executive offices, or medical treatment rooms, and any sounds that may bleed through the door or over the ceiling are rendered unintelligible (masked). This provides an added level of confidentiality to conversations, whether they are business-related or of a sensitive, personal nature, that should remain confidential. Studies have shown that the introduction of a proper sound masking system can increase speech privacy in excess of 50%.
The second benefit of sound masking is an increase in productivity in the workplace. Studies have shown that the ability to clearly hear the conversations (in person and on the phone) of the colleagues seated around them will distract workers from their duties. Human nature predisposes people to engage in conversations that are going on around them. In typical office environments where workers are distracted by low volume intelligible conversations, there is an increase in worker fatigue. This increase not only contributes to reduced productivity, but by increasing errors in data entry and detail oriented tasks, actually reduce the effectiveness of that already reduced productivity. In fact, a 2008 survey found that these distractions resulted in an average loss of almost 86 minutes a day. By introducing sound masking into an environment, productivity can be increased between 20% to 35%, while reducing data entry errors by as much as 30%. The ROI on Sound Masking is actually quite high.
The trend in modern office architecture is towards larger open spaces. Cubicle walls are lower than ever before, and in many cases, they can be measured in mere inches. In some cases, they are non-existent. This means the physical barriers to auditory distractions are no longer there. Open office environments are intended to increase collaboration and the effectiveness of teams. Unfortunately, the openness also increases the potential for distraction and fatigue. Sound masking, along with sensible acoustic treatment, enables companies to maximize the desired impact of their open office plan. It enables team members to converse in their localized area without distracting teams or colleagues adjacent to them. The distance from which a worker can still be distracted by ambient conversations is referred to as the radius of distraction. In a typical open office environment, sound masking can reduce the radius of distraction by two thirds, offering a dramatic increase in productivity.
Of course, in order for a sound masking system to function effectively and serve its purpose, it needs to be properly designed, installed and calibrated. The system will need sufficient emitters, placed in the proper locations, all outputting at the proper level to serve as a productivity multiplier rather than an office distraction. If you have an environment that you believe could benefit from sound masking, contact your IMS Technology Services representative.