How to open office spaces to restore the privacy and comfort?


When the walls have gone, privacy has disappeared too, and to concentrate productive work has become a challenge for many. An international company Western Union Service Center employed 1,600 employees in Vilnius who speak more than 30 languages, has recovered peace to the offices through intelligent engineering.

“Advantages of open design offices are definite. Immediate communication is one of the greatest of our values; therefore we are working in open offices. On the other hand, we are facing the challenge of how to build a qualitative working environment, which allows to communicate freely with clients and each other and to concentrate. In addition, when a single space has a large number of people, it is necessary to think about how to ensure the confidentiality of conversations,”Laimontas Jukonis, Regional Facility Manager at Western Union, says.

Western Union has solved this problem in their offices all over the world by installing the sound masking system. This has become a standard for company offices, which was brought to Lithuania by the company. The company Fima took care of the sound masking system at Western Union offices in Lithuania.

Noise is the biggest disturbance

Studies show that noise is one of the major disturbances at work. Unwanted noise affects a man physiologically - blood pressure rises, stress increases, and all of that have an impact on employee productivity. And it is not surprising - if someone distracts our attention for a short time it may take up to 20 minutes to fully return where we started to work.

However, so far few companies intend to abandon the modern office concept and go back to cabinets and are trying to solve problems caused by open spaces through a variety of ways. One of the most advanced technologies is a sound masking system.

“The system is overshadowing the noise by spreading a special sound that is somewhat reminiscent of the ventilation system noise. Single sounds “sink” in it, so employees practically do not hear colleagues, loud-speaking on the phone with a client at the other end of the office. This ensures the privacy of the conversation, along with increased employee productivity and satisfaction with an open work environment,” Vytautas Visminas, Fima Product Manager, says.

Sometimes the sound masking system is called the “white noise”, because its sound is monotonous, repetitive, without any verbal information. System operation is based on the masking effect - as a mask hides the face, and perfume hides other odors, so the noise of the sound masking system masks annoying sounds, but it is almost inaudible.

Order in the open office chaos

Vytautas Visminas, Fima specialist, states that sound masking is based on the human perception of the sound rather than a bigger noise. As a result, there is no increase in the overall sound background. However, it is important that the system should be properly selected and balanced - that is made by experienced professionals in each room or zone individually.

“Our brains are always analyzing sounds, which transmit certain information. When attention is focused only on signals, permanent, non-irritant, unstructured sounds do not pay our attention. We do not react to them, as we do not react to the rain noise, sounds of the sea or forest. Any employee in the office does not complain about the notebook cooler noise, which in fact is quite famous. This audio information is rejected as unworthy of attention,” Mr. Visminas explains.

According to him, such a background noise of work will not go anywhere – we just “stopped” to hear it. However, the problem in an open design office space is that the background noise level is relatively low and so the individual sounds such as conversations, music, and street noise are perfectly audible. Sound masking systems create the optimal sound background which overshadows all the other disrupting sounds, but employees “stop” to hear the sound produced by their own.

It meets hygiene standards

Special digital oscillators create sounds produced by sound masking systems, in the environment it is spread over invisible speakers integrated in rooms. The sound level depends on the specific characteristics of space: the room where ten people are working requires different volume than the room which is shared by hundreds of employees.

Laimontas Jukonis notes that noise level of the sound masking system used by Western Union reaches 40 to 45 decibels, and meets all hygiene standards and do not have any harmful effects on health. According to him, the sound masking system helps to create a productive atmosphere - spaces where noise causes fatigue and interferes with concentration become a productive and comfortable environment.

“When we moved to work in the new office, we found that people cannot quickly enter the work, they have lack of ability to work. Everything changed after installing sound masking system: an opportunity to work imperturbably, to talk comfortably to clients in any foreign language or simply to communicate with colleagues without fear of distracting a colleague who solves client issues,” Mr. Jukonis says.

Economical solution

Sound masking systems installed by the company Fima transcends traditional acoustic sound masking methods because they are dynamic, can be adapted to a variety of environmental parameters, do not take up space, and are easily installed.

Most importantly, it is a cost effective solution, which costs may be lower than the variety of architectural solutions to control the sounds.

According to Mr. Laimontas, often used traditional passive anti-noise measures such as sound-proofing materials, additional partitions and others are much more expensive solution. In addition, often architectural or design solutions limits the usage of other sound masking measures (e.g. single glass spaces), and sound masking technology has become almost the only salvation.

At the same time, the interviewer notes that sound masking technology is compatible with other acoustic solutions such as partitions which separate zones used for different purposes, sound-absorbing materials in the interior and others.

Mr. Visminas agrees with him and offers to follow the ABC approach (Absorb, Block, Cover) when thinking about office acoustic environment. Passive systems such as partitions, acoustic walls and the like absorb and suppress the sound, and the sound masking system simply hides it by compensating the absence of physical partitions (walls).

And there where you need privacy

“Although the sound masking systems are widely used in open offices and call centers, where voices of people sitting around are masked through the noise, they are important and sensitive to service sectors, where the exchange of confidential information takes place - here the noise masks a conversation between employees and the client.

This are health care institutions, legal firms, banks, government agencies serving people in open spaces (such as the Centre of Registers, Tax Inspectorate), pharmacies and so on,” Vytautas Visminas, Fima Product Manager, says.

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