ABC's of Office Acoustics


Today’s office environments are frequently open-concept, with smaller informal  “huddle spaces” scattered throughout the workplace. Justifiably so, office acoustics are more important now than ever. Creating an open office environment that cultivates collaboration while still protecting confidential conversations and individual focus can be a challenge.

Architects and designers use the “ABC” method for office acoustics.

A – Absorb
B – Block
C – Cover

Absorbing, Blocking, and Covering sound are 3 of the most commonly used methods of managing sound. Materials such as furnishings, acoustic panels, sound proofing foam, vibration pads, cubicles, and simply building a wall or installing a window can all be used in methods to absorb and/or block sound.

But walls and cubicles aren’t conducive to creating an open office that encourages employee collaboration. Absorbing sound via acoustic panels can compromise aesthetic appeal and sound proofing with foam can keep sound from getting in or out of the open office, but what about the sounds inside the office? In these situations, covering sound with technology known as sound masking is a common and effective solution.

Sound masking, also known as speech privacy technology, is used in healthcare (hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, etc…) as well as banks, government facilities, legal offices, human resources offices, lounges, interrogation rooms, reception areas, call centers, and more. It is a great for open office applications and studies have suggested that sound masking can improve employee satisfaction and productivity as a result of reduced distractions.

A sound masking system is an audio system that uses ambient sound to cover the sounds you don’t want other people to hear. The sound emitted by a sound masking system resembles an HVAC system. It is also compared to using a fan when sleeping at night. The sound of the fan makes other, more distracting sounds, less noticeable. Sound masking replicates this same concept but in a controllable and consistent way. When designed and installed properly, the system is hardly noticeable but extremely beneficial.

For example, if there is an open office with a huddle space in the corner, sound masking may be applied to cover the desks that are closest to the huddle space so the people at those desks aren’t distracted by the conversations happening in the huddle space. Another example would be covering a space outside of a conference room with sound masking. There may be confidential conversations happening in the conference room and sound masking will reduce the chance that people outside the conference room can hear what is being said. Sound masking systems can also be controlled by zones to allow for higher levels of coverage in areas with more ambient noise and lower levels of coverage in areas with less ambient noise.

Which of the ABC methods is used in an office environment will depend on design and budget. In many cases, a sound masking system used to “Cover” distracting sounds is more cost effective and efficient in accomplishing the goal. Aesthetically appealing designs tend to be compromised with “Absorb” and “Block” methods where as a sound masking system can be completely hidden. Sound masking systems can also offer additional benefits as a multi-purpose system including paging, background music, and scheduling that can ramp up the ambient noise level during busy hours and decrease during quieter times of day. Let’s see a wall or a window do that!

For more information about sound masking, CLICK HERE.