How office noise could be a force for good

mountain-streamIt’s fairly well established that nature can play a big part in our wellbeing and productivity.  Indeed, I wrote about a study last year that revealed how a short walk through a park type environment can give our productivity and happiness a considerable boost.

Could just hearing natural sounds trigger the same boost?  That was the question posed by a recent study from academics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  Their study suggests that simply hearing sounds, such as a flowing river, can improve both our mood and also our cognitive ability.

Now, suffice to say, the modern open plan office is often a long way from anything remotely natural sounding, and indeed, many offices employ a masking system to try and limit the spread of noise throughout the office.  Such systems enable you to listen effectively to those nearby you, but limits the spread of that chatter throughout the room.

“If you’re close to someone, you can understand them. But once you move farther away, their speech is obscured by the masking signal,” the authors reveal.

Noise in the workplace

Now the presence of these things is news to me, but apparently they exist in most office ceilings and mask office chatter by outputting a form of electronic noise (or white noise if you like).

The researchers wanted to test if they could use a form of masking signal that not only helps to block out the noise of open plan offices, but also helps to make us more productive.  So rather than piping white noise into the office, they began to pipe in natural sounds instead.  The hyptothesis they were testing was that people would focus more intently in such an environment, thus improving their productivity.

The study saw participants exposed to a range of different sounds whilst they were undertaking a task that required an intense focus, which is just the kind of task that open offices are usually terrible at supporting.  The noises included your usual office hubub, the white noise usually used to screen this noise, and a natural sounding masker, which in this case was a mountain stream.

Nature for the win

The results revealed that those exposed to the sound of the mountain stream were both more productive and generally happier than their peers who were exposed to more traditional office noises, both of the unmasked office din and the white noise based masking signal.

Despite the relatively small sample used in the research, the authors are confident that they’re onto something, and that using such natural sounding maskers could have a big impact on the normal office environment, but also in environments such as a hospital where it could be used to improve the mental wellbeing of patients.

It’s certainly an interesting finding and would potentially be a cheap, yet effective, way of making a substantial difference to our performance and wellbeing at work.  Can you think of any other sounds that might have a similar effect as the mountain stream?


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