Open floor spaces are now the rage. Their trendy, minimalist design appears artsy and chic, which may impress a visiting client, but working without walls can be maddening. There’s a severe lack of privacy. Although these contemporary designs may be very conducive to socializing and collaborating, they can make it insanely difficult to concentrate. In fact, headphones have now become the modern hardhat. Digital workers rely on them for insulation from the constant chatter they can’t escape.

Why is the Lack of Speech Privacy a Problem?
It’s not just noise that’s a nuisance. In fact, according to a study by the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley, people are significantly more dissatisfied with sound privacy than noise level.1 Conversations are really distracting. That’s the biggest drawback of open floor spaces; there’s absolutely no speech privacy. This really impacts productivity in the workplace. Employees may waste a lot of time searching for a spot where they can have a private chat—including going outside which can be really unpleasant if nature acts nasty. But even worse, in the heat of the moment, discussions meant to happen behind closed doors may just erupt and be heard by others nearby. Recent studies show that 53% of employees report having overheard confidential information at the office. 2   If sensitive information is discovered, this can cause serious repercussions to a business.

When employees are surrounded by constant conversation and lots of distractions, they often feel very anxious and dissatisfied. “New commercial buildings are now LEED certified and energy efficient to achieve a small carbon footprint. This is great for the environment, but what about the employee?” says Tom Nyhus, VP of Engineering Emerging Technologies at IVCi. “With open floor plans, they are left sitting on top of one another. The noise is really stressful and negatively impacts their productivity.”

Healthcare environments are especially sensitive to risks if there’s no speech privacy. (Through the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) the federal government requires healthcare providers and pharmacies to provide privacy for patient health information.3) It’s typical during shift changes and physician’s rounds to have nurses and doctors congregate in small groups just outside of a patient’s room to have confidential discussions. Speech privacy is really significant anytime a physician discusses a case with the care team.  “Maintaining speech privacy in healthcare settings helps reduce medical errors as it supports open conversations among patients, families, and Patient Care Teams (PCTs) and is believed to influence patient satisfaction.”4 Privacy is also extremely important in any open areas such as reception rooms and pharmacy counters.

Resolving Speech Privacy Issues
Companies don’t want to revert to traditional office designs, so they’re looking for innovative ways to add privacy and quiet areas. Sound masking is a great tool for resolving speech privacy issues inside the workplace. “With a minimal investment, sound masking makes speech no longer discernible, so employees can concentrate,” says Tom Nyhus, VP of Engineering Emerging Technologies at IVCi. “It helps them to focus, so they can work faster with fewer mistakes. These benefits to business far outweigh the costs of this sensible solution.”

In healthcare environments, sound masking reduces speech intelligibility, eases a patient’s fear of being overheard and satisfies the mandated HIPAA requirements. It can also improve sleep, a very important part of the healing process. “It can be seen that sound masking has the most significant effect in promoting ICU patients’ sleep, producing an improvement of 42.7%.”5

Sound Masking in Acoustic Design
The ABC’s of acoustic design include elements that Absorb, Block or Cover sound. From absorbing materials such as carpeting and ceiling tiles to blocking structures such as cubicle partitions, doors, and walls, there are many ways to reduce noise and provide speech privacy. However, many of these options are counter to the modern open office and costly.  Because sound masking is a low-cost solution, it is now a critical component of acoustic design for today’s architect.

So how does it work? Sound masking uses speakers—typically installed in or above the ceiling—to add low level, unobtrusive background noise so conversations can’t be heard, but it doesn’t eliminate noise. Instead, it makes speech less intelligible by adding an ambient sound that’s specifically engineered to the frequency of human speech.Since conversations are muffled, they can’t be understood, and therefore, they aren’t as distracting.

Sound Masking Isn’t White Noise
When deployed correctly, sound masking systems mimic a gentle flow of air, but they don’t use white noise which is a very specific type of sound. White noise has a wide range of frequencies (typically from 20 to 20,000 Hz) generally randomly produced, with equal volume across the entire range.7 The end result is very annoying, similar to radio static. In the late 1960’s and 70’s, white noise generators were used to cover sound, but they didn’t work well because they were so irritating.

After over 30 years of acoustical engineering research, companies such as Atlas, Cambridge, and Lencore have developed sound masking solutions. They use a narrower frequency range from approximately 100 to 6,000 HZ and follow a specified, non-linear curve developed for both effectiveness and comfort.8 That's why sound masking can pleasantly provide speech privacy in today’s environments.

Sound masking is an excellent low-cost option for creating speech privacy in open office spaces and healthcare environments. Not only will it muffle conversations to compensate for the lack of walls in modern floor plans, it will also keep patient care conversations confidential. But, that’s not all. A sound masking solution can also serve as a mass notification or phone paging system. IVCi, a collaboration expert with over two decades of proven experience, recommends engaging a design engineer very early during the stages of pre-construction to start objectively measuring acoustic levels, so the best solution can be determined. However, there are also sound masking options available for existing spaces. For more information, contact your local IVCi sales representative at 800-224-7083 or visit https://www.ivci.com/.

Heather Corbin is the Regional Account Manager for IVCi in Atlanta, GA. She has over 19 years of experience in the AV Industry and carries a CTS Certification, as recognized by InfoComm International, Audiovisual (AV) Association. Heather has worked alongside design engineers, consultants and architects throughout various projects within Corporate, Healthcare and Educational environments.

Diane Hagan is a Marketing Content Specialist for IVCi in Hauppauge, NY. She has over 20 years of experience in Marketing Communications.

1 Acoustical Analysis in Office Environments Using POE Surveys, CBE Center for the Build Environment, July 18, 2007

2 National survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from November 4 to December 2, 2014

3 Acoustics  in Healthcare Environments; CISCA Ceiling & Interior Systems Construction Association, October 2010

4, 5 Sound Masking Solutions for Hospital Environments, Cambridge Sound Management, 2016

6 Sound Masking 101, Cambridge Sound Management 

7, 8 White Noise, Pink Noise, LogiSon Acoustic Network, July 19, 2012