Office Productivity: Can Ambient Sound Make You More Productive?

“The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” — Henry Beston, writer and naturalist

“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Brian Eno, musician

“You are one-third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms. If you have to work in space like that, carry headphones with you with a soothing ambient sound like birdsong, put them on, and your productivity goes back up to triple what it would be.” — Julian Treasure, Chair of The Sound Agency

We all know how difficult it can be to concentrate when it’s noisy.

But that begs a question: what exactly qualifies as noise? After all, what might drive me to distraction may be barely noticeable to you. And in any case, one’s ability to tolerate noise can vary according to health or mood. It’s a lot easier to ignore your cubicle mate’s snoring if you’re feeling fine and things are looking rosy. But imagine how annoying it would be if your allergies were acting up or your computer just crashed…

We’ve all been there, and we all know that distracting noises can affect our productivity. But by how much? You might be surprised…and possibly shocked. According to sound expert Julian Treasure, most people are one-third as productive in a noisy room as in a quiet one. Yikes! Assuming he’s correct, then if you normally earn the company $1,000 a day in a loud workplace, you could do $3,000 worth of business if you could work in relative silence.

True silence is rare, so the best defense against annoying noise is distance. In the modern office, you’re unlikely to have that option; so lacking volume controls for your coworkers, you have little choice but to try to mask distracting noise. Listening to music with a top-notch pair of noise-reduction earphones can be an effective way to do so, but then you make yourself inaccessible to others…and half the time you end up singing along. That’s not very productive, unless you’re Miley Cyrus.

This is where so-called “ambient sound” comes into play. Strictly defined, ambient sound is just about anything you’d expect to hear in the background of life: dogs barking, cars passing, distant voices, the dishwasher, the whoosh of the A/C. As used in productivity circles, however, ambient sound is defined as soothing, quiet, often cyclic recordings that create a “sonic space” allowing the kind of purposeful focus that heightens productivity. Wind through trees, rainfall, the soft rush of waves on the seashore, even gentle music are all touted as productivity boosters.

Okay, this all sounds good, but does it actually work?

The jury’s still out on that. Despite some wild claims, ambient sound probably won’t boost your productivity much. Some researchers have documented productivity increases as high as 6.3% in workers exposed to ambient sound; others have demonstrated that pure silence is better. But almost invariably, the study groups have been so small that the results are statistically meaningless.

On the other hand, pure silence isn’t going to happen in the modern office space, so anything that masks background noise can certainly distract you from the distractions, as it were.

Whether or not sound can spike creativity, some sounds are certainly calming. At about 12 cycles per minute, for example, the sound of the seashore comes pretty close to the breathing cycling of a sleeping human. Both tend to be comforting…and you rarely have to worry about the ocean snoring. Birdsong also tends to relax us.

Still, I’m inclined to believe that what’s perceived as soothing on the aural front is as individual as one’s taste in clothes, music, and food. Sure, most of us do like quiet, rushing sounds like the beach or falling water…but where does this leave the many students who study quite happily and effectively while blasting rock ‘n roll on the radio? That’s the type of ambient sound that allows them to maximize their productive potential. Apparently, they’re not really listening to the music—they’re just drowning out the noises that bug them.

It seems, then, that “soothing” is in the ear of the beholder. Heaven help ’em, there are probably people who find the sounds of an open office restful. CFOs, maybe.

All that said, I do think that seeking ambient sounds is worth trying, but you can’t assume that what works for other will work for you. If the restful rush of just puts you to sleep (definitely a productivity downer), do a little experimenting, and see what you come up with.

You may even find that your most productive ambient sounds are, to steal a classic song lyric from Simon and Garfunkel, the sounds of silence.



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