Employees need background noise to concentrate?

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As cubicles shrink and in some cases disappear altogether,  people have become more aware of privacy issues around accidental eavesdropping and some companies are looking at sound masking options as a result

From so-called pink noise – when a barely noticeable hum is projected through the office – to systems designed specifically to your office, it’s about finding ways to make it harder to overhear conversations, and can also help people concentrate on tasks at hand.

See also: Employees can’t concentrate in cube farms

US software company Autodesk installed a pink-noise system last year. To test its effectiveness they turned it off one day, without telling employees.“We were surprised at how many complaints we got,” Charles Rechtsteiner, Autodesk’s facilities manager, told the New York Times. “People weren’t sure what was different, but they knew something was wrong. They were being distracted by conversations 60 feet away. When the system’s on, speech becomes unintelligible at a distance of about 20 feet.”

Similar systems are gaining popularity in Canada. The move towards greener spaces has helped drive demand, according to Derek Johnston, a partner at Soundmask Canada. Greener offices often include lowering partitions to improve natural light, which means sound travels further.

Another issue is the risk to privacy of conversations being overheard.

“It’s become far more prevalent recently,” he said. “One reason for that is that people are recognizing that speech privacy is really important. Masking is often used in places like hospitals where speech privacy is extremely important.”

The company has installed extensive systems for hospitals, including Niagara Health Services, and high-profile events such as the G8 and G20 security centre, but they also complete about five small scale jobs a month.

It’s an extensive process that includes measuring the reverberation of a space (how much the sound “reflects” around the room – it’s what makes your voice sound tinny in a phone booth). Then speakers are installed, often above the ceiling tiles, to create a consistent noise-blocking sound throughout the space.

“You pump this noise in and I can have a normal conversation with someone four or five feet away, but I can’t hear what’s happening 20 feet away,” Johnston added.

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