Author Archives: Matt Nees

The New York Times Tackles the Office Speech Privacy Issue

In Sunday’s New York Times, reporter James Barron discussed the quandary of Dafna Sarnoff, a marketing executive that went from having a large office at a financial services firm to a new opportunity at Yodle, a start up, where she’d have to sit at a desk in a completely open office environment. The change was so dramatic that she considered not taking the job!

The article explains that Ms. Sarnoff’s situation is not unique:

With rents surging as the Manhattan office market rebounds, many companies are looking to cut costs, and one way to do that is by trimming personal space. The shrinking is happening beyond New York. The average amount of space per office worker in North America dropped to 176 square feet in 2012, from 225 in 2010, according to CoreNet Global, a commercial real estate association. Though more recent figures are not available, real estate experts say there is no doubt that workers are being shoehorned into even less space.

Packing more and more employees into smaller and smaller spaces obviously has repercussions for employees, particularly in regards to speech privacy. The article references a Yodle employee who had to cancel a meeting with a client due to an conflicting colonoscopy appointment — the cancellation and the reason behind it were heard by at least 6 of his open-office neighbors.

With less space to work with, many architects and designers are attempting to create spaces in offices where employees can go to escape the noise. The article explains:

The result, nationally as well as in Manhattan, is offices with less space for desks and more square footage for conference rooms or other activity space areas, as some designers call them. Also popular with architects and designers are “refuge rooms” to which employees can retreat when the buzz around them proves distracting — the open-office equivalent of the low-decibel “quiet car” on many trains.

While we at Cambridge Sound Management agree that “quiet cars” are a good solution to the noise problem, it’s only one piece of the puzzle for making an open office acoustically comfortable. Our recent install at The Bridgespan Group provides a good case study on how companies with open office environments can use a variety of tactics, including adding “quiet cars” and Sound Masking, to help make collaborative workplaces less prone to noise distractions.

Distractions and the Open Office Environment: A Productivity Expert’s Take

Recently Cambridge Sound Management was featured in an article by productivity expert Laura Stack about how employees and managers can reduce and cope with noise distractions in their open office environment. We’re thrilled that the article has been picked up on The Huffington Post and


An excerpt:

Many workplaces today feature more open spaces and smaller, and often shared, workstations. These open floor plans have become “the new normal” in many organizations. Some people speak of them positively, citing the ability to collaborate with coworkers and the creative feeling they can inspire. However, I hear just as many complaints about the walk-in visitors, interruptions and noise level negatively affecting workplace satisfaction, productivity and speech privacy.


Laura goes on to discuss options for blocking out the noise, including Sound Masking:


Increase background noise to mask the sound. What? Increasing background noise (called sound masking) seems counter-intuitive! Think of it like this. While I’m standing at the kitchen sink with the water running, and my son starts talking to me from across the house, I can tell that he’s talking to me, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. It’s not that he’s talking less loudly; the water is actually “masking” the sound of his voice or covering it up. Adding sound makes speech less intelligible. When you can’t understand what someone is saying, their words are less distracting; in fact, you probably don’t even notice them.

 sound-masking-illustration - open office environment


If you would like to learn more, Laura is offering a free one-hour webinar on the topic on March 17, 2015. Bring your entire team to a conference room and project the webinar on a screen!

Last Sunday’s Doonesbury comic really hit the mark when discussing the noise issues inherent in open office plans.

She’s right about the loss of productivity. Open-plan employees are interrupted once every 11 minutes according to research from UC Irvine, and it takes them up to 23
minutes to get back into the flow of what they were doing before they were interrupted. These distractions make employees much less productive — a 2014 Steelcase/Ipsos study found that employees lost as much as 86 minutes per day due to noise distractions!

And the comic’s protagonist is actually undershooting it a bit when she says “almost half” of employees say that lack of sound privacy is a huge issue — the number is actually closer to 60%!

drivers-of-office-worker-dissatisfaction - Office Speech Privacy Crisis

Here’s hoping this office has sound masking installed soon — seems like they need it!

 – Mark Hughes

Open Office or Broken Office?


In case you missed it, The New York Times recently asked a panel of experts to debate the relative merits of cubicles vs. open office layouts as part of their bi-weekly “Room for Debate” feature.


Here’s how the NYT framed the debate:

Though about 70 percent of U.S. workplaces have open office floor plans, numerous studies have shown that employees who work in offices with no or low partitions suffer increased stress from lack of privacy and disrupted concentration — which ultimately decreases worker productivity overall. Should the open office layout be reconsidered? Is it time to bring back the cubicles and the corner offices?


Each panelist had their own unique take on the subject, but as you might expect CSM was most interested in the response that focused on acoustical comfort. Here’s an excerpt of architectural consultant Adam Stoltz’s point of view:


An acoustically comfortable workplace provides appropriate support for interaction, confidentiality and heads-down work through a combination of behavioral protocols, effective zoning and smart material solutions. Designing an effective workplace environment requires a commitment to customization based on each organization; the use of urban planning principles to achieve effective zoning, awareness and accessibility; and solutions that offer employees flexibility, choice and control over where to do their best work.


You can read all of Mr. Stoltz’s response here.

We agree with this sentiment. In our view, the question isn’t necessarily “open office or cube farm” — it’s what office set up works best for you and how can you make that layout acoustically comfortable? All employees would like either workplace if they had the increased speech privacy that sound masking and other acoustical materials provide.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.