Sound Masking for Post-COVID Return-to-Office

After a year of dealing with COVID, some employers are beginning to put plans into motion for bringing employees back to the office.

Coming back after months of working in the solitude of the home may take some getting used to for many employees. The sounds of the office and lack of privacy for conversations can make for very distraction-rich environments.

To keep office noise from hurting productivity many companies look to sound masking technologies for help. And for good reason. It works!

The Technology Behind Sound Masking

The idea behind sound masking is to raise the noise floor of a room. The noise floor is the level of audio in a room without human interaction.

As an example, even without a single sole in the office there is a certain level of noise. It comes from the ventilation, computer fans, the ceiling lights, etc. By measuring the volume of all of those sounds, we get the noise floor.

Sound masking works by using speakers to recreate “white noise.” This is audio noise having equal intensity across the entire audio spectrum. To put it simply, it is every audio frequency we can hear, all at once. It raises the noise floor and yet, at moderate levels, is almost un-detectable to the human ear.

When the noise floor is raised, our brains struggle to compensate, making it more difficult to pick up on a single source of sound…like a conversation.

This increases privacy, reduces distractions, eases people’s fear of disturbing others – leading to an overall increase in productivity.

Several corporate studies have validated this. A 2018 independent experiment by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health showed that noise, especially speech, reduces task performance of cognitively demanding tasks. According to the model, task performance reduces with increasing speech intelligibility.

For the experiment, both before and after sound masking was installed, office workers were asked, "How often do you act in the following way to cope with your work because of the sounds in your work environment?" (1=never 5 = often)

As you can see, there is quite a difference between the before and after. The best part, sound masking that is properly installed and tuned is completely unnoticeable…until it’s turned off. When that happens, in an instant, you can hear a pin drop from across the office.

However, corporate sound masking systems are not all the same. The systems have two main components:

1. The white noise generator, and

2. The loudspeaker (and its placement)

A leading brand of sound masking will use a white noise generator that runs an algorithm to create a fluctuating but near-perfect white noise. The fluctuation and intermittent changes are not intelligible to our ears but have lasting impacts on our brain after eight-plus hours of exposure.

Lower grade sound masking systems use a recording of white noise on a loop. Our ears do not decipher the repetitive loop but imagine listening to the same song on repeat all day, every day for years. Repetitive loop players are known to cause headaches and ear fatigue.

And then there’s the loudspeaker, which is the audio source for a masking system. It is important for the speaker to replicate the exact sound being generated by the white noise generator.

Lower-end speakers will sound harsh and unbalanced. These types of systems are noticeable to the human ear – sounding similar to the sound from your old tube-television when the snowy static was on the screen.

Tuning and balancing a sound masking system is also critical. If a casual walk through the office yields audible differences in the sound masking system, it becomes a distraction. Installers should be trained and certified by the manufacturer and be using calibrated audio measurements tools.

If you are curious or want to hear a live demo, reach out to your E1 Audiovisual friends and let us help.