Squeezing more employees into the same amount of - or smaller - space might save on real estate, but the decision doesn't come without a price. While it's hard to know just how much productivity is lost (and the resultant costs), no one argues that speech privacy in an open-plan work environment can be a significant problem if it isn't addressed.
While soundmasking isn't a silver-bullet solution, it can significantly decrease conversational distractions. The following advice will help you quiet the complaints, curb eavesdropping, and increase privacy.
Do your homework.
Don't let a lack of knowledge or experience with soundmasking result in a poor purchase. Familiarize yourself with the differences between performance levels of competing products. "Customers should also learn about and carefully compare systems with respect to sound generation, control-method options, zoning capabilities, timer functions, installation methods, scalability, special functions, certifications, and even aesthetics," advises Niklas Moeller, vice president, LogiSon Acoustic Network, Burlington, ON.
Don't forget that soundmasking is only one part of an integrated acoustical solution.
"Speech privacy isn't a function of soundmasking alone," says Tom Koenig, president, Dynasound Inc., Norcross, GA. It's important to specify interior finishes (e.g. carpet) and furnishings (e.g. acoustic ceilings and furniture panels) that absorb and block sound. "It's always important to understand how the other components within your space affect the acoustics before applying your soundmasking solution," explains Jodi Jacobs, marketing director, Lencore Acoustics Corp., Woodbury, NY.
Do recognize the limitations of soundmasking.
Evaluate what noise you're trying to cover and be aware of what soundmasking can and, just as importantly, cannot address. "These systems are designed to mask conversational speech. While soundmasking may also cover other workplace sounds (e.g. phones ringing, papers shuffling, and typing) the spectrum of sound is specifically architected for human speech," says Anne Duvall, marketing director, Cambridge Sound Management, Cambridge, MA.
Don't buy before scrutinizing the quality of the sound.
Listen to a soundmasking system before you purchase it, because the sound it makes is ultimately what you're paying for. Also, Jacobs advises that you make sure the sound actually masks speech. "To do this," she says, "the soundmasking needs to have the proper blend of high and low frequencies."
Do ensure that the design of the system provides uniform sound.
Soundmasking should go virtually unnoticed. "The sound should be very uniform throughout the space, with no hotspots of uneven sound," says Duvall. If speakers are too far apart, individuals passing through the space will easily be able to identify the location of each sound source. This will call unwanted attention to the system.
Don't be tricked into buying an ongoing maintenance plan.
"The rarely spoken fact is that most soundmasking systems, when tuned properly, should not require much - if any - ongoing maintenance, calibration, or tuning unless there are significant changes to the space," says Jacobs. Annual maintenance contracts are simply not necessary.
Do adjust the system later, if needed.
The soundmasking system in any environment should be modified when the characteristics of the space change (e.g. if new furniture panels or ceiling tiles are installed). Duvall adds: "There are several reasons a customer would need to adjust the system at a later date: if the space was reconfigured, if the coverage area was expanded, or if paging or music functionality was desired after initial installation."
Jana J. Madsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor at Buildings magazine.