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Fine Tuned Comfort

How to Design an Atmosphere for Productivity and Health  

Usually it’s when we’re away from home that we learn the most about comfort. Far from the familiar patterns of home and how we normally work at the office, forced to adjust to other notions of chair height, mattress firmness and room temperature, it suddenly becomes abundantly clear that we are all uniquely individual when it comes to our physical needs.

Despite all this evidence of our very particular preferences, research has identified at least one universal notion of comfort. On a subconscious level, or maybe very conscious for some, we seek consistency in our auditory environment. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1998 found that productivity drops by 66% if while trying to focus on a task, one can overhear someone else speaking. More recently, sound expert and frequent presenter of TED Talks, Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency in the U.K., has shared significant data points on how noise levels and environmental sounds can make us feel productive, stressed, energized or acquisitive.  

We’ve all noticed it when someone takes a personal phone call in the office or a loud, diesel truck is parked outside the window. The human mind is easily distracted by aberrations in the sonic atmosphere. Loud noises draw our attention and distant conversations draw us in, as instinctually we are creatures of information. We need to know what is going on all around us at all times to identify opportunities or threats. 

Even with this empirically established fact, many of us remain unaware of the variables contributing to our acoustic comfort. We know too loud, we know distraction, but we have much to learn about the environmental elements that help or hinder our comfort and influence our productivity, wellbeing and even our physical health. 

It begins with the sonic signature of a room. In today’s built environment, trends lean toward open-plan spaces adorned with exposed brick, concrete, metal, glass and innumerable other hard surfaces. With a minimal amount of walls to break up the physical space, or carpet and other soft surfaces to absorb some of the audible clutter, complaints of noise and lack of focus quickly arise.  

Somewhat more curiously, our sensitivity to sounds that are incongruous with the auditory norm in an environment may lead to that space being described as “too noisy,” when actually it’s the fact that a room is too quiet that exacerbates the presence of any noise. Despite this truth, few would call a place “too quiet,” because our perception identifies sound as the irritant.  

The time has come to listen to your local librarian and learn a little bit about quiet. In the office environment, the number-one complaint that human resources managers receive is about a lack of privacy or discomfort related to overhearing conversations (often those containing what is labeled as “bad language”). 

Correlative to this, research by office furniture companies has identified a decrease in productivity in today’s open-plan office settings. 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, there are simply more people in close proximity. More people create more distraction, and studies have shown that it takes the average person 15-20 minutes to get back on task after something pulls them away from work.   

Productivity can seem like a very abstract notion until you do a little bit of math. If 50 people each represent a net gain of $1,000 a day for a company, and they’re losing 10% productivity, you’re down $5,000 for that day. 

So how do you create gains in the other direction? Improve a space so it’s conducive to higher focus in a more comfortable work environment. Whether it’s an office, healthcare facility, classroom or library, the provision of a more consistent acoustic signature, with fewer glaring sonic interruptions, can increase productivity by as much as 12-25%, according to research conducted in the field. 

Let’s start with the ABCs of environmental sound control. You can A, absorb sound, B, block sound, or C, conceal sound. Absorption disappeared with now-extinct cubicle walls, carpet, wall coverings and ceiling tiles that were torn out in favor of contemporary design. Blocking is a bit difficult in open-plan offices, where if there are any walls, the designer preference for transparency means they’re built from glass, which only increases the reflection of noise around a room. 

That leaves concealing as an option. But what is that? If you’ve ever turned on a fan or a space heater to block out noise, you’re concealing sound. Many would refer to this effect as “white noise,” which is a bit of a dated notion about the best ways to conceal noise. The sometimes grating edge of white noise, which has a history of being pumped into spaces requiring privacy back in the1960s, has negative connotations. But sound concealing, or masking, has come a long way since then.  

Today’s digital processing technology allows for a very specific calibration of masking noise, so it’s like very fine shading that softens the edges of an environment. The effect is closer to a pleasant breeze on the patio versus air hissing out of a punctured tire. When auditory distractions are concealed in this way, masked with a carefully engineered precision specific to the room’s architecture, materials and use, people are more comfortable. 

When noise is an issue, either because there is too much sound pollution or too little sonic buffering to smooth out the occasional auditory interruption, it’s good to know there is a new option for improving comfort. New in that the best technologies offer many different variables for tuning an environment to best meet your individual needs for comfort. 


SIDEBAR: Calibrated Comfort 

There are many ways to cover up unwanted sounds, including even more undesirable sounds like lawn mowers or vacuum cleaners. But even within the more comfortable fashion of sound masking, there are several options for a higher-calibre of concealment.  

It’s best to think of masking as having shades of intensity that can be adjusted to perfectly suit a room. It is possible to have multiple tones mixed within the generated sounds, so that speech is obscured for privacy and enhanced productivity, and comfort is enhanced in an atmosphere smoothed out for sonic peace.  

If you are considering a sound masking system for your space, make sure it has variable settings and is tuned by a professional. Some systems offer a one-size-fits-all approach that is the equivalent to firehose. You probably want something with more than one option, providing a delicate rain shower here or a waterfall there, depending on what you are trying to mask. Otherwise you may do more harm than good.  

To get the balance just right, more than 40 years of acoustical research and optimization have gone into the development of sound masking offerings manufactured in the U.S.A. by Lencore. Ever since company founder Jack Leonard built the first self-contained sound masking system, this family-owned company has built a reputation for its careful and considered approach to improving acoustics and the lives of those who live and work in the spaces enhanced by Lencore solutions. 

There are really two criteria for sound masking: Privacy and comfort. Many masking solutions will provide privacy, but if they don’t offer the comfort of a well-tuned sonic solution, then often the system levels are turned down or even off by those who work around them every day.  

To provide comfort, Lencore builds in more digital processing to enable the addition of deeper tones mixed into the spectrum of its products’ masking output. This blend cushions louder sounds and softens the edges of conversations so that speech is heard, but only by those who are participating in the conversation.