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Office Sounds – Concentration or Distraction?

Office Sounds– Concentration or Distraction?
19 August 2020 | Updated 14 September 2020
 

In 2020, the ratio of open office to solitary work has shifted massively to the latter. Change in the acoustic environment is both hindering and helping productivity.

An Oxford Economics report in 2016 found that office designers prioritise encouraging employees to interact with each other often. However, the same report found that employees rank the ability to focus without distractions as the most important factor in their space. Younger employees tended to even opt for a different kind of sound in order to cancel out the noise, choosing music in headphones.
 

"We speculated people might actually enjoy the relative peacefulness of their home offices, but as it turned out it was quite the opposite."

–Tobias Norman

Head of Production, The Sound of Colleagues


Musical Focus

 

The positive effects of music on mood are widely known, but there can be quite the effective distinction in whether it occupies the background or foreground when delivered directly to the listener’s head. For example, studies have found that lyrical content may be a detriment when writing reports or articles – it can be much less distracting when working on tasks without a verbal architecture such as coding software or working on an assembly line. 

Some offices, like many that are forced to co-exist in areas that experience levels of external noise pollution, will add music (often in overhead speakers) to the mix of in-house chatter. Whilst this is obviously less of an alternate focus for the individual, different tastes can cause frustration and even tension between those responsible for the choice and others. Then there's internal pollution. Crisp packets, whistling, heavy hands and heavy feet – what's your irritant?

 

Office Noise Generators

 

Much like those that are used to living next to a busy road, or those that are used to sleeping in rural areas, preference would likely depend on what is familiar. It is clear in website traffic that many people have at least been interested to try simulating background noise at home – the rise in popularity for relevant noise generators has come as a surprise to their creators. These browser or app-based banks have long been a solution for covering unwanted noise like relative pollution. The key is to provide pleasant ambience that is tuned out by the brain after a few minutes. Some people use rainforest and ocean tracks to relax or relieve stress.

 

Image

Picture: A man wearing headphones at his laptop on an office table where others are conversing.
 

Belgium Research Engineer Stéphane Pigeon, who created Office Noise Generator, told the BBC: "When the pandemic hit and people started to work from home, I released an office noise generator, really as a joke. I didn't think anyone would listen." The Sound of Colleagues is another similar service, attracting more than a million page views, including 164,000 from the UK.

They typically feature several ambient recording loops of commonly heard sounds in the average office environment, like people speaking, coffee machines, animated chairs and keyboards. There is then an audio mixer that gives the user control over which sounds are present, to filter out those that are a nuisance and others that provide comfort. Despite the possibility of feeling unsettled by peaks and troughs when heard in headphones, these create a natural illusion if played quietly through a room speaker. 

 

Office Health

 

Mental health has been an important concern to be addressed for home workers during lockdown, and this will certainly carry through as many companies decide to stick with this model for the apparent benefits. Alienation can be combated in the subconscious with such noise thinks Tobias Norman, the Head of Production at The Sound of Colleagues.

"People seem to really enjoy the company provided by office sounds," he said to the BBC. "It takes away the feeling of isolation. We as humans feel more comfortable together than alone, even if we are not actively engaging with the group that surrounds us. And with sounds, we can trick the mind into thinking you are actually physically together with other people."

It's true that not everyone dislikes working alone. However office noise generators could certainly help distinguish work and leisure time psychologically, in the same way professional dress does. Perhaps they will be updated and evolved over time to keep them from feeling stale, or fake for the audience.

 

Picture: A photo of people talking in an office.

Article written by Bailey Sparkes | Published 19 August 2020

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