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Studies have shown that low-level office noise can increase health risks, lower task motivation for workers, increase stress and affect short-term memory and a person’s ability to focus on tasks. While sensitivity to sound varies from person to person, complex, design-oriented and technical tasks often fall victim to mistakes and mindless tasks – like web surfing – when distracting noises are introduced.

Noise is probably the single greatest killer of office productivity. And you don’t have to be in a waiting area or open office plan to feel its effects.

So, how do you deal with these distractions?

There are many ways that sound travels throughout a room. And maximizing productivity often means having a multi-faceted plan in place to minimize the noise. A healthy balance of sound dampening and sound masking is often the best approach.

Sound Dampening

Sound dampening is accomplished by modifying some of the physical or tangible components within your office. For example:

Furniture. Whether you are using a benching system or cubicles, the height and materials are most important. In areas where collaboration is expected, a divider panel height of 48″ or lower is appropriate. But anything less than 60″ will be ineffective at blocking conversational noise. When it comes to materials, glass or acoustic paneling with a Sound Transmission Class (STC) of 18 or higher is preferred.

Flooring. Since sound waves bounce top to bottom as well, using carpet with a cushioned backing is optimal. Regardless of material, the higher the Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC), the more dampening it will provide.

Ceiling. Acoustic ceilings are given an Articulation Class (AC) rating, which determines its effectiveness for dampening. An AC rating of 200-180 is preferred, but you also have to remember that ceiling height affects performance.


Sound Masking

Sound masking requires the use of electronic frequency generators to effectively ‘mask’ conversational noise by generating background noise that’s low in volume, yet targeted at the precise range of the human voice. The result is a slight increase in background noise, combined with a substantial decrease in the intelligibility of your co-workers’ conversations.

According to multiple studies, sound masking often leads to a 20% increase in productivity and a 25% increase in overall satisfaction at the workplace. In offices involving high communication frequency – like call centers – those numbers are remarkably higher.

So why doesn’t everyone do it?
Sound masking often requires an acoustical engineer to fine-tune it to the proper angles and frequencies for your building. They are often designed for in-ceiling installations and therefore have a cost-per-square-foot that can be cost prohibitive for smaller business. But if feasible, the benefits include making your office environment tolerable for the majority of employees. This slight change increases an employee’s ability to focus, which leads to greater output and improvement to your bottom line.

Have you had any experience with sound dampening or masking? What helps you minimize noise in the office?