Cutting Through The Noise

The Center for the Built Environment in Berkeley CA recently surveyed more than 25,000 workers in more than 2000 buildings to determine what the key environmental issues were for workers. Of all of the factors workers encountered in their environment, speech privacy was far and away the factor they were the most dissatisfied with, with 60% of cubicle workers and 50% of open-plan employees saying they were unhappy.

Speech privacy refers to one’s ability to hear and understand conversations. People with a lack of speech privacy are not only hearing conversations that aren’t intended for them, but are concerned that their conversations are being overheard. This has major ramifications for businesses, not just for worker satisfaction, but for productivity. Researchers recently found that, on average, employees wasted 21.5 minutes per day due to conversational distractions, making lack of speech privacy the number one cause of reduced productivity. That’s roughly 4% of an average employee’s workday (based on an eight-hour day). Some quick math shows that a company with 100 employees and an average employee salary cost of $100,000 is losing $400,000 a year in lost productivity.

Lack of speech privacy also drives legal and compliance issues. Closing the door to an office or conference room no longer guarantees that the conversation held there won’t be overheard in the cubes outside. Actually, 53% of employees report having overheard confidential company information at the office. Additionally, employees are often discussing medical and financial information, either their own or a customer’s, over the phone. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen for any company.

The driving force behind all of these speech privacy issues is the progression of the “open office” floorplan. In an effort to combat real estate costs while fostering employee collaboration, nearly 70% of offices are now open offices. This means lower cubicle partitions, more glass surfaces and windows to let in natural light, and, oftentimes, exposed ceilings and floors. Open offices are often beautiful aesthetically, but offer almost no speech privacy.

OK, but why are you telling me this? Mainly because the open-office speech-privacy crisis provides an excellent opportunity for you to sell sound masking to your clients. When designing an optimal acoustic environment, architects consider a variety of elements to address noise control and speech privacy. Elements added either Absorb, Block or Cover sound, and are collectively called the ABCs of acoustic design. Sound masking is the “C” part of the equation. With open offices, much of the material that blocks sound (walls, partitions) is deemphasized. Carpets and ceiling tiles that absorb sound are also out of vogue. So, in many ways, architects, designers and building owners only have one of the “ABCs” (Cover) left at their disposal to protect speech privacy, and integrators are the only people they can get it from.

The problem is that, although many of your clients know they have a speech privacy problem, they usually don’t know what sound masking is. They may have a general idea of terms like “white noise” or “noise cancellation” and, although these terms are technically inaccurate to describe sound masking, they sometimes help the client grasp the concept.

In reality, the speakers you install in the ceiling will be bringing the ambient noise level of the environment up with an airflow-like noise that is specifically engineered to “cover up” speech noise at distances greater than 15 feet. As a result, instead of hearing conversations throughout the office, employees will only be able to understand the conversations within 10 to 15 feet of them. Thus, sound masking can reduce noise distractions and protect speech privacy without impacting collaboration. Seeing (or, rather, hearing) is believing: It’s usually helpful to do a live demo so you can close the sale.

If you’ve never sold sound masking before, there’s no time like the present. Technological advances have made it possible to do paging, background music and masking, all in the same speaker, so adding sound masking can often solve multiple problems for your client at once. Next time you’re visiting a client, ask if employees ever complain about being distracted by their coworkers. Are they often wearing headphones to block out all of the noise? Can people in private offices hear conversations from other private offices? Chances are that you’ll get a yes to any of these questions, resulting in a potential sale and a new happy customer.

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