Sonic Solutions For Open Plan Offices

The open plan office is a fairly typical workspace in modern urban centres; but is this actually the optimium sonic environment for productivity?

An Earful At Work

The impact of sound on our cognitive functioning is often overlooked, particularly in the workplace. Modern open plan offices are typically designed to be a collaborative space, but in reality the main driver behind this model is cost – fewer walls means more floorspace, into which more desks can be crammed.

Some visual separation can be achieved by adding desk partitions and creating Microserf ‘veal fattening pens’, but creating sonic separation isn’t so easy. Julian Treasure specialises in analysing audio environments, and I’ve covered his take on workplace ambient sound in a previous post.

Sounds Like Progress

In this article from the New Yorker, it is observed that open plan offices tend to lead to higher levels of interruption and lower productivity. In fact, having greater control over one’s environment seems to be a key factor in productivity and well-being – in a noisy environment, wearing headphones may be one solution, but having a sonically pleasing ambient environment would be a preferable ideal. Although within the headphone environment an employee may have total control of what they listen to, working in an office so noisy that headphones are almost compulsory would tend to undermine this sense of sonic self-determination – and furthermore, according to research by psychologist Nick Perham, both a noisy office environment and listening to music on headphones impairs our mental acuity.

As workplaces become noisier, some efforts are being made to address the potential negative side-effects that might be caused by ambient sound. There are now companies which attempt to create music specifically geared to improve productivity at work, claiming to use neuroscientific principles to generate ideal cadences of focus without distracting from the task at hand. Although I have no personal experience of testing such music, it seems reasonable to assume that some forms of music would be more conducive to productivity than others; however, whether it’s necessary to choose neuroscience branded tracks to achieve this may be a matter of some debate…


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