The effect of sound masking on employees’ acoustic comfort and performance in open-plan offices in Canada



Sound masking systems are commonly used in open-plan offices to generate a controlled minimum level of background sound, in order to decrease the signal-to-noise ratio of intrusive speech and blend out transient office noise. However, a question in the acoustical design of offices is whether the self-generated noise of occupants may alone be sufficient to provide the background sound level conditions necessary to achieve similar levels of speech privacy and acoustic comfort as sound masking systems. This study examines the relationship between occupant-perceived speech privacy and acoustic comfort under three different acoustic scenarios (no masking, controlled 42 dBA, and 47 dBA masking sound levels). The study was conducted pre-COVID-19 in two separate open-plan offices located in Quebec, Canada that at the time were close to full occupancy. Employees completed subjective questionnaires before and after each change in conditions, focusing on how the sound environment impacted their comfort and work performance during the study. Statistical results show that the occupants were significantly more satisfied during the two sound masking conditions in comparison to the no-masking condition, where only the occupant-generated and exterior/mechanical system noise was present as the background sound. Implications for open-plan offices with lower occupancy conditions post-COVID-19 are discussed.