Companies Redesign Open-Plan Offices to Mask Sound

The standard sea of cubicles is all but forgotten in modern open-plan offices, which ditch walls and barriers to promote collaboration and collegiality. Employees have responded to the distractions open floor plans pose by wearing headphones, bolstering makeshift partitions with books and relocating behind file cabinets to regain their concentration. Are we nearing the end of this communication-fostering workplace layout?

Possibly. A growing number of offices with open floor plans are focusing on sound masking to improve speech privacy and regain lost productivity. "In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices," said John Goins of Berkeley's Center for the Built Environment to The New York Times. "The noisemakers aren't so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem."

Part of the problem is that while open-plan offices foster and enable communication, this chatter isn't always as creative or innovative as leaders might like. Management professor Anne-Laure Fayard told the NYT that, according to research, workers in open offices actually have more superficial conversations because they know they will be overheard. "Everyone is still experimenting with ways to balance the need for collaboration and the need for privacy," she added.

Despite these drawbacks, open-plan offices are ideal for politicians' campaign offices, newsrooms and other high-energy environments. Do you work in an open office? If so, how do you manage acoustics and privacy?

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