|Sound masking boosts privacy, productivity|
August 19, 2011 2:14 PM
Long Island, New York — By Ambrose Clancy
If it's so damn quiet, why is it so damn noisy?
That's the contradiction in terms that plagues many office workers. With carpeted floors, cubicles made of fabric and the quiet of computer-generated work, office workers still can hear every word a colleague is saying on the phone and catch every syllable two people are uttering more than 20 feet away.
The din of other people speaking is ironically due to all the things designed to bring noise levels down, said Jodi Jacobs, director of marketing for Woodbury-based Lencore Acoustics.
"Traditionally, as late as the 1960s and '70s you had typewriters that made a lot of noise, metal desks and uncarpeted floors," Jacobs said, so hearing your neighbor's conversation was difficult or impossible. With the rise of the open floor plan for offices and the introduction of computers, everything said was heard.
Lencore manufactures and installs "sound masking" systems for buildings - either for new construction or retro-fitting existing buildings - nationwide and in 18 countries. Sound masking is a soft, purring, white noise sound that conceals human speech and other office sounds. From ceiling-installed systems, a constant unobtrusive hum, 3 to 5 decibels higher than the human voice, masks speech.
The idea was first put in place as a security measure. Government offices and military installations required need-to-know status for many conversations. Health care offices, especially in patient registration, billing, same-day surgery and other divisions also were in the forefront of employing sound masking to secure conversations. Others present at the creation were banks, credit unions and law offices.
But now the concept has become a trend in all work spaces, for privacy, but also for productivity. According to a study by the American Society of Interior Designers, seven out of 10 employees said noise was the top distraction in the workplace, followed by air quality and lighting. Offices with sound masking installations found 48 percent of employees were more focused on tasks and 51 percent were less distracted, resulting in 10 percent less errors. Nearly a third of workers surveyed said their on-the-job stress levels plummeted.
Another survey by the Data Entry Management Association reported data entry errors can spike as much as 40 percent because of sound distractions.
With statistics like that, sound masking advocates believe the systems pay for themselves and more, with the cost anywhere from $1.50 to $2.50 per square foot. (In other areas, such as New York City and Chicago, the cost can rise to $3.50 per square foot.)
Thomas DePace, chief operating officer for Advance Sound in Farmingdale, noted savings also are reaped when systems are wired to run only during office hours, or throttled down so night security employees can hear what's going on in supposedly empty offices.
Statistics vary, but seem to agree, that two years ago, about 15 percent of new office construction included sound masking systems. Jacobs noted education for architects and developers had sparked interest the last few years, and DePace said the concept was becoming reality by leaps and bounds.
"I've been with Advance Sound for seven years and seen sound masking grow," DePace added. "But in the last three years it's really accelerated. We do between 30 and 40 large installations a year."
The greener buildings get, the more sound masking might be an imperative, said Tobias Holler, Professor of Architecture at New York Institute of Technology. "In newer, more sustainably designed office buildings with more efficient and therefore quieter AC equipment, sometimes sound masking equipment has to be installed, to create enough background sound to ensure privacy," Holler said. Also, new trends in office building design are moving toward an open and more democratic furniture layout with few or no individual offices, so dealing with acoustic privacy becomes even more important, he added.
Employees are usually completely unaware conversation is being masked, until, for some reason, it's not, Jacobs said.
"People will say, 'Is it hot in here? Something's changed. Something's wrong.'"
Original article August 11, 2011 from Long Island Business News
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