Security in Sound Masking
It’s about much more than ensuring employee performance and satisfaction are running at their best. While those are certainly important factors that can be solved with a great sound masking system, there are also important legal and security issues that FMs should consider when dealing with sensitive workplace information on a daily basis.
Cambridge Sound Management has been an industry leader in the sound masking space for years and their approach has always encompassed more than the obvious office side-conversation concerns. Mark Hughes, Senior Marketing Manager at Cambridge, breaks down some of the crucial benefits of sound masking that are often hidden in plain sight.
There are many different outlooks on sound management and how to approach it. What is Cambridge’s perspective and approach?
Hughes: Cambridge started as a company in 1999 and released its first product back in 2001, a product that we still continue to sell and manufacture today, which is our direct field sound masking system: QtPro.
The way sound masking was done previously is that you’d have an upward-firing speaker above the ceiling tiles in the plenum that would reverberate the sound off the ceiling deck back down into the office indirectly. Our founder John Heine is an MIT grad and acoustics genius who did a lot of work for Bolt, Beranek & Newman (who developed the first electronic sound masking systems) and also some work for the U.S. Government and the Navy. He came to the conclusion that you could insert sound into the office directly instead of indirectly and still achieve uniform coverage of the space. He did this through his speaker that had a very wide dispersion so you could achieve uniform coverage without hot and cold spots.
This product solved a lot of problems for a lot of facilities people because it was simple to install and maintain. It’s basically just three components whereas sound masking previously had this reputation of being complicated with lots of hardware. We try to keep it simple by having our systems include as few components as possible. We also offer advanced indirect sound masking solutions so we can meet any architectural challenge or specification.
What kind of industries do you find utilize Cambridge’s services the most and have you seen any trends in workstyles at their facilities?
Hughes: Most of our business is in office environments across multiple industries. The main defining characteristics of all the people who determine they need sound masking for their space is that workplaces are putting more people into smaller spaces and cubicle partitions are coming down to facilitate collaboration and let in more natural light. These are trends that are happening across architecture and interior design. It’s facilitated partially by design needs to make the place look good, but also cost in order to put more people into a smaller space because real estate is expensive.
Architects talk about the ABCs of architectural acoustics: absorb, block and cover. Cubicle partitions block sound, but since they’re being replaced in many modern office spaces, you need something to make up for it. Things that absorb sound like carpets and acoustical ceiling tiles, you’re seeing more open ceilings with wooden and concrete floors now and sound reverberates everywhere so you’re losing a lot of the absorbing components of sound management. Absorb and block are being deemphasized and cover has to be extra emphasized — that’s where we come in. In a perfect world, all three of the ABCs would be used to maximum effect but if they’re not, sound masking can be an effective and inexpensive way to solve acoustical issues.
Why do you think sound management has become such a coveted service within the FM industry?
Hughes: I think FMs are fielding more employee complaints than ever. There was a survey a while back about workplace satisfaction and they asked people to rank how happy they were based on a list of factors within their office environment — acoustics came up at the very bottom and workplace speech privacy specifically. That was even worse than how people felt about thermal comfort which, if you’ve ever worked in an office before, everyone’s always complaining about that.
That’s been driven by current architectural trends, 30-40 years ago everyone had a private office so you didn’t really have these issues. Now with everyone in open office environments they’re overhearing every conversation on the phone, every huddle room meeting, all sorts of conversations that aren’t intended for them. Meanwhile, they’re supposed to be focused on individual tasks — can FMs help? That’s where FMs look for that technological solution to the problem and that’s how they find us.
How do you think sound masking affects security issues in the workplace?
Hughes: If you’re closing the door to a private office or conference room, you have an expectation that what’s going on in that room is going to be private — that’s not always the case.
One construction trend that’s happening a lot is that walls aren’t being built all the way to the ceiling deck, they’re only going to the beginning of the drop ceiling so sound is just going directly over the wall and into the surrounding office space. People are overhearing things they shouldn’t be hearing. That could be a private meeting, a discussion about corporate strategy, a discussion between HR and an employee and it could even be situation where sensitive customer data is being discussed.
There’s legal and compliance issues related to not providing acoustic privacy to an office space. In addition to all the employee satisfaction and productivity, a lot of FMs are also concerned about the legal implications as well.
Cambridge offers eavesdropping protection units. Not every sound management organization offers this kind of unique service, why do you think it’s important?
Hughes: Most of our anti-eavesdropping and anti-espionage stuff is going to be government installations where they have certain regulations for what kind of sound is able to be transmitted out of a room where people of a certain level of security clearance are allowed to be in. We can secure that room basically by securing the sound transmission points — walls, ducts, windows, etc.
There are situations, however, where companies are concerned with corporate espionage and things of that nature. These kind of products can have a benefit in the corporate world as well.
With respect to sound masking, what do you think the future of the workplace will look like over the next 5-10 years and how do you think sound masking technology will have evolved by then?
Hughes: On a very basic level, I think the trends we’re seeing now are going to keep continuing. Spaces are going to get more open, there’s going to be more of a mix between work areas, collaboration areas and, for lack of a better term, play areas.
Sound masking is going to have to be part of businesses moving forward. Otherwise, you’re just going to have way too much distracting noise and not enough quiet spaces to concentrate and do individual tasks. There’s other opportunities for sound masking to fit into smart building initiatives, but wherever technology takes the building environment — we’ll be sure to adapt to it.