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When You Can't Close the Door

Creating Privacy in Open Spaces

by Jonathan Leonard

 There is a seemingly unsolvable problem in the modern workplace. Someone takes a personal call and suddenly the sordid account of their divorce overtakes any comprehension of the quarterly sales report topping a to-do list. Or a copier seems to squeak and rattle louder with each passing moment that a proposal remains unfinished. We’re agitated, but we don’t know why.

Office design trends of recent decades take more cues from airplane hangars than libraries, prizing open-plan spaces adorned with exposed brick, concrete, metal, glass and innumerable other hard surfaces. And still we wonder why we’re heading home from work each day with even less checked off the list than the previous day.

The human mind is easily distracted by aberrations in the sonic atmosphere. Creatures of information by instinct, loud noises draw our attention and distant conversations draw us in so that we may identify opportunities or threats. It takes very little effort to note a train whistle outside the window while attending to a television program in the living room, or monitor a gossipy exchange at another table in a restaurant.

Unfortunately, the reflexive nature of this sensitivity means it is often overlooked when productivity sinks or human resources drowns in complaints about a lack of privacy or discomfort related to overhearing conversations (often those containing what is labeled as “bad language”). We know “too loud”, we know distraction, but we have much to learn about the actual culprit in these situations.

Research by office furniture companies has identified a decrease in productivity correlative with the disappearance of the traditional 10’ x 10’ cubicle in favor of “desking,” which gives each person approximately four feet of rectangular counter space in a long row. With so many people in close proximity and nary a wall or even a scrap of carpet to absorb their sounds, distractions abound and most people know from experience that the average person requires 15-20 minutes to get back on task after something pulls them away from work.

So how can companies put the brakes on productivity loss in their chic new minimalist environs? Investigate acoustic enhancements to provide a more consistent sonic environment. Don’t worry about putting in plush carpet, building sound-buffering walls or hanging velvet curtains. The solution is a little bit easier than any of that. Anyone who has ever turned on a fan or a space heater to block out noise is demonstrating the invisible principle of this magic productivity booster: concealing or “masking” sound.

Too often, this effect is referred to as “white noise,” which is a dated notion about the best way to conceal aberrant sounds or blur conversations to the human ear. The sometimes grating edge of white noise, which was historically pumped into spaces requiring privacy beginning in the1960s, has negative connotations. But sound concealing, or masking, has come a long way since then. Digital audio processing allows for a very specific calibration of sound masking, so the effect is more comparable to a pleasant breeze than air hissing out of a punctured tire.

Meanwhile, those waiting for office managers to catch on to new ways to smooth out the jolting aspects of sound in open spaces might want to try hissing to block out those unwanted phone conversations and printer noises. The simultaneous effect of verbal disapproval might help make the point that something needs to be done to make the office more comfortable for the humans that work there.