Lately I’ve been noticing that my ability to work productively is significantly impacted by the sounds in the environment that I’m working in. I can work very comfortably in a café with a ton of background noise, but I can be driven to distraction if there is a single conversation happening somewhere in earshot. Also, what affects me and how seems to have changed over time. When I was young, I couldn’t do much of anything unless ‘Born to Run’ was booming away in the background, but lately I prefer to work in relative silence. Bottom line: in the wrong sound environment, my ability to focus and get things done drops significantly.

I can’t say much about the why’s and wherefores of that, but I happen to know a man who can. My friend Julian Treasure (serial entrepreneur and all-around man of reflective action) was so interested in this subject he created his last business (The Sound Agency) around it. His desire to spread the gospel of creating appropriate sound environments has led him to deliver 3 separate TED talks on the subject, which have been viewed a total of 16 million times on the interweb.

Over to Julian…:

Noise is a familiar adversary for us at The Sound Agency. Usually it’s physical noise in spaces like shopping malls, offices and airports that we deal with, as we help our clients to create more peaceful and calm environments that enhance productivity – as described in my TED talk on designing with our ears. That’s probably why we are so sensitive to ‘noise’ in our minds too, and why we like GTD’s ability to help us work with a mind like water, or in other words – a peaceful and productive internal work environment. It’s just as hard to concentrate with mental noise as it is with physical noise, so we use GTD to help keep all those plates spinning, silently.

Of course complete silence is not always the best working environment; some types of sound can actually enhance productivity. For example, The Times recently installed the sound of old-fashioned typewriters in its newsroom, with the sound building to a crescendo at press deadline. But can sound really enhance office workers’ productivity?

Sound powerfully affects us in four ways, even though we’re generally not conscious of them. Physiologically, sound alters all our rhythms, including heart rate, breathing, hormone secretions and even brain waves. Psychologically, sound changes our moods and emotions. Cognitively, sound affects how well we can think and how productive we are. And behaviourally, sound affects what we do and where we do it – we move away from unpleasant sound if we can. Hearing is our primary warning sense, so sound goes very deep very fast. And since we have no ear lids, our ears are working even while we sleep.

It’s dangerous to generalise about sound because many of its effects work through association. This can be universal: we all instinctively associate any sudden, unexpected noise with danger and react with a release of fight/flight hormones, while most people find sounds like gentle rainfall or birdsong calming and reassuring. But many associations are very personal, for example Wayne Rooney’s need to have a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer on when he’s trying to go to sleep.

Most of the sound around us is accidental, unpleasant and counterproductive. We stand on street corners or sit in restaurants bellowing over 80 dB of noise and pretend it doesn’t exist. In society, noise is costing billions, mainly through loss of sleep, which affects one in five Europeans. And in offices, bad sound reduces productivity as well as adversely affecting health.

Is music a solution? Sadly, piped music in so many public spaces is often just more noise. Rarely is it carefully designed to enhance our experience; much more likely it is there because retailers have subscribed to an incorrect view that music makes people spend more. In fact, research has shown that fast-paced music generally speeds us up through a process known as entrainment, so we leave sooner and spend less – exactly the opposite of the effect the retailers desire.

Music is designed to be listened to, so it’s calling for attention all the time, syphoning off our very limited auditory bandwidth and elbowing aside our ability to listen to the voice in our head we need when we’re doing mental work. Of course, listening to music may make a boring task more fun and help get it done at all. Equally, it may help sustain motivation so the work can go on longer, so there are trade-offs here. Everyone’s different, so there may indeed be some people who are far more productive listening to death metal!

 With that caveat, some useful rules of thumb are: 

  • slow-paced sound tends to relax, while fast-paced tends to stimulate
  • stochastic sound (lots of random events creating a wash of sound, like rainfall or office babble) tends to be good for working
  • the most distracting sounds are human conversation, telephones and alarms of any kind (hence soundscapes in hospitals are disastrous for patient rest and sleep)
  • prolonged exposure to noise over 65 dB is not good for you – and over 85 dB your employer must offer you hearing protection.

Conscious sound design can definitely help us all to become more productive, healthier and happier. But in offices it needs to be designed after looking at the mass of research available, and installed by consensus on appropriate sound systems. Time will tell if The Times typewriter noise trial works, but my guess is that the sound won’t last without buy-in from the staff themselves.

If you are interested in learning more about the impact of sound on your productivity you can find more on The Sound Agency’s website:

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