Last edited 01 Feb 2021

Speech privacy in buildings

Simply put, speech privacy is the inability of an unintentional listener to understand another person’s conversation. So, people with a lack of speech privacy are overhearing lots of conversations that they shouldn’t be, which can be annoying to employees.

When we look at acoustic-related complaints of office workers, we find that most complaints centre around the idea that others can hear their conversations, or that we can hear others’ conversations (a lack of speech privacy). Rarely is the problem that there is simply too much noise in the environment.

As an example, many people have no problem working in a coffee shop or other public place, but once they are in an office, the expectation of speech privacy is very different, and indeed the reality of speech privacy is very different. In the office, we are able to understand every word that our neighbors are saying, whilst in the coffee shop it does not seem to matter.

So when we define speech privacy, there must be an element of intelligibility. It is not practical to eliminate all conversational sounds in a workplace, but it is certainly not impossible to significantly reduce intelligible speech throughout a workplace.

53% of employees report having overheard confidential company information at the office. This lack of speech privacy can result in compliance and legal concerns when workers are discussing private customer information such as finance or healthcare records.

Lack of speech privacy is the number one complaint among office workers. The Center for the Build Environment in San Francisco surveyed more than 25,000 workers in more than 2,000 buildings to determine what the key environmental issues were for workers. Their results mirrored those found over the last 20 years in similar surveys – specifically that of the architect designed features surveyed, acoustics (including the lack of of speech privacy) was considered to be the most objectionable.

Sound masking can help companies protect confidential customer, company, and employee information.

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