Elizabeth Hyde of PLASTARC shares some steps that workplaces can take to produce more inclusive ambient conditions.
It is widely known that distraction caused by noise is the top complaint in many workplaces. This is especially true in open plan offices, which often make use of design features that exacerbate the issue. Less frequently discussed are the ways in which sound can be strategically leveraged to enhance occupant experience. By attending to the acoustic dimension of spatial choice, organizations can support employee wellness and performance even as many also move in the direction of more flexible work practices. The mainstream adoption of phone booths and privacy pods will be instrumental to this end.
Some elements of workplace sensory input appear to be more or less universal in their mental and physical benefits, such as taking in views of art or enjoying access to sunlight, fresh air, and greenery. Dynamic surroundings, particularly those that integrate principles of biophilic design, can sharpen faculties and buffer against feelings of tiredness and burnout. The impact of aural stimuli, by contrast, is far more variable.
“Expecting people to routinely compromise around auditory exposure in a group setting may be the equivalent of asking them to alter the very manner in which they interpret the world!”
In fact, sensitivity to noise—and one’s ability to manage it—derives from basic personality traits that extend beyond superficial manifestations of preference. More specifically, researchers have found that those who score higher on measures of neuroticism and introversion, as assessed by the Big Five Inventory, tend to report greater physiological and psychological reactivity to unwanted sounds. In other words, expecting people to routinely compromise around auditory exposure in a group setting may be the equivalent of asking them to alter the very manner in which they interpret the world!
What steps, then, might workplaces take to produce more inclusive ambient conditions? As a starting point, they can strive to achieve what experts call “acoustical comfort,” meaning an environment strikes a balance between facilitating social interaction, confidentiality considerations, and concentrative work. The encouraging news is that these distinct functions need not be in perpetual conflict with one another. By incorporating freestanding, sound-dampening workstations into office layouts, organizations can craft more diversified spaces to better serve a broader range of employees. The desired outcome is an atmosphere that makes people feel “seen” when it comes to what they hear.
LEND AN EAR
Sound is like light in some respects. Both are forms of energy that travel outward from a source of origin, and each exists on a spectrum, only a portion of which is discernible to humans. As early as elementary school, students learn that an object’s color is determined by the wavelengths it reflects. In order to be seen, these must simultaneously fall within the band of frequencies visible to the naked eye. Therefore, the role of perception—and its inherent subjective quality—accompanies an understanding of how we process this type of ubiquitous visual information.
The same conceptual framework can be applied to sound. Among the similarities is the fact that listening requires our biological participation even when it occurs outside of our conscious awareness. Without us so much as registering what is happening, a force of vibrating particles propagates from one medium to the next until it reaches an unsuspecting eardrum. From there, it is translated into electrical impulses within the brain, whose own mechanisms shape the intensity of the resultant signal. Put simply, sound occurs in collaboration with a person’s body—and no two bodies are exactly alike.
This has important health implications. To illustrate, scientists have uncovered markedly increased rates of atrial fibrillation (heart arrhythmia that can lead to blood clots, stroke, and organ failure) among those who exhibited “extreme noise annoyance reactions.” Even infrasound—whose frequency falls below the threshold of human audibility—seems capable of affecting the nervous system, prompting recurrent fatigue, headache, nausea, insomnia, and digestive disruption, according to investigations. Meanwhile, there is a growing movement around tools and treatments related to “sound therapy”. Binaural beats, for instance, generate an auditory illusion involving two near-identical tones that are played concurrently in each ear. The neural reconciliation of the slight discrepancy between them is thought to synchronize brain waves and lift one’s mood. The Internet contains about as many endorsements as it does warnings of potential harm.
This last point is a critical one. Notions of “noise pollution” and that hazards posed by it must be operationalized by the individual. Workplace structures that allow that individual to opt in and out of set-ups that either enhance or diminish personal wellbeing are the wave of the future.
CONTROL THE VOLUME
The noise register in an open office hovers around 70 decibels (dB)—on par with that of a blaring television. Unsurprisingly, this figure is well in excess of the 49-58 dBs deemed appropriate for the workplace by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. As a consequence, employees in such environments may, ironically, find it challenging to get much done. They might be squeaking by in terms of productivity metrics, but it’s unlikely too many are creatively flourishing while straining to tune into their own inner discourse.
That being said, workplaces are not intended to be pin drop quiet. Total silence is actually unnerving, as it fundamentally diverges from our evolutionary adaptation to sound. Rather, an acoustically comfortable space is as much about the presence of the right kinds of auditory stimuli as it is about the absence of the wrong ones. In some cases, there’s a middle ground. A privacy pod, for example, utilizes materials like laminated glass and fabric paneling to transform the voices of its occupants into a pleasantly muffled audio stream. When encountered from the outside, the volume is comparable to that of a whisper. Thus, in addition to reducing the loudness of speech that would otherwise intelligibly filter out into common areas, this method of insulation offers a muted but positive contribution to the overall office soundscape. For perspective, this means the absorptive properties of “soft finishes,”—previously limited to difficult-to-install items like carpeting, ceiling tiles, and hanging felt baffling—are now as mobile as our modern workforce.
HEAR US OUT
With such a focus on noise mitigation, it’s easy to overlook an essential question: What is it we do want to listen to throughout the day? In answering, individuals ought to examine what they gravitated toward during the long stretch of distributed working spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic. Presumably, these circumstances allowed for a finer degree of control over aural matters, at least if at home. Some may recall pulling up “masking” apps with different sonic hues. Others may claim that settling in under an air conditioning vent proved sufficient for drowning out the commotion of neighbors. Still others might point to a curated music playlist that came to signal a transition to heads-down time. These are rituals that can “return” to the office with us. There is even a burgeoning trend of bringing meditative practices, including “sound baths,” to the corporate sector. Whichever dimension of acoustics one seeks to embrace or avoid in the workplace, privacy pod manufacturers like Hushoffice
Written by Elizabeth Hyde for Work Design Magazine.