There are many philosophies behind the open floor plan, or the cubicle office. Fostering creativity through interaction, teamwork, and a sense of equality were the forefront of these ideas. Less expensive floor plans and a consistent look are also benefits. Some companies discover a problem with an open office environment, disruptions. These disruptions can be direct, because a person is much more accessible, than they were behind a closed door. Or they can be indirect. With no doors, walls, or ceilings to mask sound the workspace can be very loud. Your co-worker talking on the phone, speaking with a colleague, or streaming music can all be a disturbance. Throw in the phone ringing, the fax machine dialing, and the elevator dinging, and concentration went out the door with traditional office walls.
Instead of the improved productivity these environments promote, their inherent noise and distractions can actually lower employee productivity, errors, stress, and mental fatigue. These disruptions can become so great that people will go to extreme measures in an effort to make the office environment more acoustically pleasant. I know of one company that put shag carpet the walls of the office in an effort to reduce unwanted noise. Surprisingly it does improve the overall acoustic quality of the area, but did not reduce the unwanted noise of coworkers talking on the telephone. When my wife was in college she used to listen to classical music when studying. When I asked her why she did this she said she wasn’t listening to the music she was using it to block out the noises around her so she could concentrate. 25 years later, sound masking is a bit more sophisticated. Sound masking is the use of sound, either natural or artificial, to “mask” or cover up unwanted noise with a soothing or less intrusive sound reducing or eliminating a person’s awareness of the unwanted sounds in their office. The sound is streamed into an environment and goes unnoticed.
The installation of sound masking is simple, the engineering a bit more complicated. Engineers measure the sound, measure the room and height of the ceiling, and then engineer placement of the speakers and optimal volume. Speakers can be placed above the ceiling, suspended from the ceiling or below a raised floor. A sound generator is installed, an octave band equalizer, a mixer or equalized for paging, zone amplifiers to control volume, and programmable sound level controls. Once all components are installed adjustments to the real world environment and your specific environment are made.
If you are planning to implement a sound masking system into an existing working environment careful attention to deployment needs to be considered. Although employees or customers may be complaining about the excessive noise in the work environment, other employees may actually begin to complain about the noise the sound masking equipment makes if it is turned on abruptly one day. In order to enjoy a smooth transition to your new quiet office environment I suggest you take the following approach. Installation and testing should happen after hours when all employees have gone home. Carefully mark the optimal volume on sound masking amplifier. The manager of the office environment will then need to take a full month to get the volume raised up to that pre-established optimal level. This will make sure you address your current complaints while not adding others.