DATE: 02/05/2016

Shh! – it’s the sound routinely made by elementary school librarians, hardworking moms and collaborative workspace employees the world over. “If only we could get a little peace and quiet, we could get this done,” they say.

While it’s beyond our scope to provide advice on the topics of child rearing, we do know a thing or two about how to achieve sound privacy in a busy space. Over the past several years, offices across the globe (and right here in San Antonio) have been switching from traditional cubicle structures to open office plans at an astounding rate. In fact – pretty soon – the only way to see a cubicle in the United States will be to visit a historical museum!

Today’s renovated offices feature workbenches, lowered partitions and communal spaces that encourage impromptu problem-solving and collaboration. Not only have such designs been shown to enhance the kind of innovative thinking today’s organizations need to stay ahead, they’ve also been shown to substantially reduce real estate costs. And, lest you think the trend is entirely dollar-motivated, think again.

We work differently today than we did 10 years ago – smartphones, tablets and a wide range of collaborative software (ie. enterprise messaging apps, video conferencing technology and project management programs) have all introduced new possibilities for when and how to complete tasks.

As Kay Sargen of Work Design Magazine put it: “If we did to the fashion industry what we have done to the workplace, we would all be walking around in a unisize red dress. And would you want to see each one of your coworkers prancing around in the same unisize red dress?”

Yeah, neither do we. But with new changes, come new challenges. As such, the transition to collaborative spaces hasn’t been smooth sailing for all involved. Which brings us back to the topic at hand – lack of sound privacy.

Not to be confused with noise level complaints (which also ranked high), sound privacy refers to the distraction of overheard conversations. What this means is that the “quiet conversation” of two nearby co-workers could potentially be even more distracting than a malfunctioning car alarm. The phenomenon is due to the way the brain processes speech. Unlike other sounds, speech is immediately recognized as something “to figure out.”

A 2014 study conducted by furniture designer Steelcase, actually found workers lost as much as 86 minutes per day due to such distractions. While there are many potential solutions for enhancing sound privacy in the workplace – drafting clearer employee codes of conduct, constructing privacy nooks and installing white noise audio systems – one of the most effective we’ve seen is a product called the Acoustix Screen.

Manufactured by Blade, the low-level partition is engineered to reduce nearby conversational noise. Made of 60 percent minimum post-recycled materials, the screens effectively dampen the sounds of bench-dwelling coworkers. While it may be hard to believe such a small material could decrease open office noise complaints, it makes sense when considered within the context of the original grievance – the distinction of words spoken, not the sound itself.

At CBI, we’ve installed Acoustix Screens (as part of an overall noise reduction plan) for many clients who have reported great results. But, as every office is unique, there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions. Click Here to find out what we’d recommend for you.