How to Create (Sound) Privacy in an Open Office

Dustin Staiger

In a previous article, we discussed whether an open office concept is right for you. We mentioned how workers benefit when they have a choice of privacy options. But what if you already have an open office? How do you create office privacy in a layout where coworkers are in each other’s line of sight and are within earshot of every conversation? 

“There is plenty of research that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations.”
Julian Treasure chairman of a United Kingdom-based consultancy, The Sound Agency. 

Why Do We Need Acoustical Privacy?

From offices to schools and even in hospitals, research is showing the negative effects of lack of acoustical privacy. The issues are compounded for medical facilities that need to comply with  HIPPA patient privacy regulations. In any office, distracting noises aren’t just a nuisance. They interrupt our ability to focus and be productive. 

There are methods for reducing noise.

Below are three basic ways office noise can be reduced.

  1. Ceiling tiles absorb sound
  2. Furniture panels block sound
  3. Sound masking covers sound

Measuring Noise

Ceiling tiles and furniture panels can help absorb and block some noise, but sound is like water. It can spread through the smallest gap. Sound masking provides additional privacy by covering sound. A common measure of sound treatment in offices is the Privacy Index (PI) ranging from 0 – 100%. A typical office with ceiling tiles and 48” partitions will measure a PI of 59%. By adding sound masking, the average office PI increases significantly to 87%.

What is Pink Noise?

We promote sound masking systems that use “Pink Noise” to reduce audible distractions for workers who are focusing while increasing privacy for individuals who are speaking. These systems are specifically engineered to contain the same spectrum as human speech. However, to the untrained ear, it sounds the same as white noise.

To understand how this helps, Cambridge Sound describes sound masking this way:

Imagine looking up at the stars on a clear night:

The stars shine brightly against the night sky. As dawn breaks, the stars appear to dim as the ambient light increases. The intensity of the starlight has not changed, but rather as the ambient light increases, it becomes more difficult to discern the light from the stars.

This works the same for human speech. As the ambient sound in the room increases, it becomes more challenging to discern an individual’s conversation from across the room. This inability to understand the conversation reduces distractions and increases the speaker’s speech privacy.

Sound Masking Options

Depending on the needs of an office, we can suggest differing solutions. To create privacy for individual workstations, Sonet QT provides a portable solution that is easy to install. For group privacy, we suggest systems that are installed into the ceiling (direct field systems) or above them (plenum systems).

Sonet QT provides individual sound masking

QT Pro provides sound masking for larger spaces

Soft DB‘s smartSMS-NET Project Manager Software even allows the user to easily see, access, and control each sound-masking unit – or group of units – with a state-of-the-art graphical user interface.

If you’d like more information about sound masking or how it applies to your specific office needs, contact our walls team to speak with an architectural solutions expert.