How to Use Sound Acoustics for Better Productivity in the Workplace

An open-plan office can be a smart design in many ways. Rent is usually lower with this kind of design, and it’s a great way to encourage collaboration. Interaction and collaboration between coworkers can boost morale, and foster a more energized, happier workforce.

There is one serious drawback to the open-plan office, hower, and that’s unwanted, bothersome noise. Noise from even casual conversations can be overwhelming and distracting to workers who are trying to focus on non-collaborative tasks, like writing. An industry study by Bosti Associates shows that it takes 15 to 20 minutes for workers to regain concentration following a noise distraction.

This kind of disruption of productivity can have significant and costly impact on your business.  The Bosti study argues that “the two workplace qualities with the strongest effects on performance and satisfaction are those supporting distraction-free work and supporting interactions with co-workers. Both of these top workplace design priorities must exist without compromising the other.”

The question is, how are business managers supposed to satisfy these two seemingly contradictory requirements of a productive workplace? The solution can be found in something called “Sound Masking.”

What is Sound Masking?

There are three ways to control sound in your office: Absorb, Block, & Cover…


Special acoustic ceiling tiles, carpeting, and panels, and wall coverings can all be very important factors to creating an acoustically comfortable wall space.  The right materials absorb sound and deaden noise.


The best way to block sound is, obviously, to have a completely enclosed private office.  For open plan offices, it’s possible to get a significant reduction in sound by installing moveable walls with the right “STC (Sound Transmission Coefficient) Rating.” An experienced acoustician can specify materials and doors that will deliver the kind of silence that fosters concentration and productivity. Place seals around walls and doors to limit where unwanted sound can travel.

Remember that sound is like water, and it will penetrate a breach.  Imagine filling your private office with water…wherever the water will travel, so will the sound.  So all of those areas need to be sealed.  For example, sound will pass through a double outlet from one room to another, so you should use one sided electrical outlets. Make sure the HVAC does not have a straight line connection to another room because sound will travel up, over and down. Putting sharp turns in the HVAC channel will break the sound.

Office Design

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Often, it’s difficult to find ways to block sound in an open-plan office. In general, open office space is becoming more crowded with less space than ever per employee. In addition, panel hieghts in cubicles are being lowered for daylighting and HVAC flow.  This creates disruptive noise, lowers productivity, and irritates employees.  In this scenario, our ability to absorb sound is reduced, and we’ve virtually eliminated our ability to block sound.

Our best weapon in this situation is to cover sound using “Sound Masking.” Sound masking is a system of speakers, used in combination with acoustical elements in the walls, ceiling, and floor that introduce an unobtrusive, ambient background noise into an open-plan office.

Sound masking can increase speech privacy from 50 feet down to 7 feet, meaning that words will not be intelligible beyond 7 feet when spoken at a normal decibel.  This keeps distractibility in the open plan office to a minimum.

Lastly, it’s important to choose a sophisticated sound masking system. Any loud noise will give you speech privacy, but a chorus of chainsaws is unlikely to increase productivity. The trick is to choose the right sound masking company that can give you a soft, comfortable background sound that will be “invisible” to the ear.

Bill Brown is a representative for major furniture manufacturers, including Lencore Sound Masking, in Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia. For more information visit his website at

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