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The Real Science Behind Sound Masking in The Office

Posted 6 months ago

The concept of “in one ear, and out the other” has no place in the office. In fact, one of the biggest employee complaints about an open office concept is the level of noise. The sounds people inadvertently pick up on when they’re on the clock have major psychological and physical effects. From employees overhearing entire conversations around them to something as simple as the tapping of a keyboard, their mood, productivity, and cognitive abilities hinge on their ears.

That’s where sound masking comes into play. A step up from white noise, the innovative new office technology is an equal blend of both science and sheer architectural art.

The Origin of Sound Masking

Although implementing sound masking devices within the office is a recent phenomenon, the practice has been alive far before the creation of the 9 to 5. The benefits of sound masking date back to ancient Rome, when Romans used to place fountains by their homes to mask unwanted street noise.

Science Behind Workplace Distractions

Even if employees have their eyes glued to the screen, their ears will be their biggest downfall. Studies have shown that those who are subjected to speech that wasn’t essential to their task at hand performed poorly in reading comprehension and short-term memory tasks. Office performance plummeted when employees were surrounded by intelligible, intermittent conversations from nearby cubicles and desks.

Speech is inevitable despite the size of an office. Overhearing office neighbors has scientifically been proven to be one of the biggest workplace distractions. Very low, balanced background noise doesn’t have a significant negative effect on cognitive performance, leading experts to implement steady low levels of noise in an office to create a harmonious work experience.

What Happens If the Noise Persists?

Office chatter is a productivity killer, but the long-term effects of a noisy office can create some serious issues for employees. Over a prolonged period, the noise and lack of privacy may cause health issues.

For example, exposure to loud noises is directly correlated with an increase in stress. With time, this stress may develop into something more serious, like high blood pressure. Stress has been cited as the number one reason to leave a job, and a high employee turnover rate means a serious loss of money for any business, small or enterprise.

Additionally, the noises associated with open-office plans leads to employees slouching. This small adjustment can turn into a habit, causing musculoskeletal disorders. The worst part is, nobody ever gets used to the distracting noise. Research shows the negative effects simply worsen over time.

It All Goes Back to Our Brain

The stress that’s induced while trying to channel out distracting noise triggers the release of cortisol, the hormone that attempts to bring the body to equilibrium. However, excessive release of cortisol can impact the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This section of the brain is responsible for planning, reasoning, and short-term memory.

When the prefrontal cortex isn’t acting at full capacity, the ability to focus and retain information is at stake. New research also suggests that dopamine isn’t readily available when noise-related stress is abundant. The effects of low dopamine range from overall dissatisfaction and boredom to full-on depression.

While you might think that the little noises in the office like traffic serve as a small problem initially, they can blow up over a period of time.

Crafting the Perfect Sound

Office ruckus can’t be masked with just any sound. The goal is not to create additional sound, but rather create an environment where the existing noise is unintelligible beyond a certain radius.

Because sound masking includes using a noise which lacks definitive meaning, the human brain does not retain the sound of the “mask”. The peak of the sound masking wavelengths is not so different than the existing office noise.

Is Sound Masking the Only Solution?

Sound masking is an effective solution to increasing workplace productivity, but there’s an additional measure that can be taken. Studies have shown that when natural elements like flowers, plants, photos of nature, and natural colors are added to an office setting, employees typically feel more motivated and at peace.

When these natural elements are paired with water-based sound masking, employees reported that they have more energy after the break periods. This finding was confirmed by additional studies, which demonstrated that people are able to regain focus more efficiently when they listened to natural sounds, compared to sitting in silence or listening to an unnatural background noise.

The Future of The Office

Sound masking is the future of office culture, especially with the more frequent use of open office concepts. As of 2017, 70 percent of offices in the United States has little to no partitions or other means of privacy. In spaces where sound masking is present, there is notable psychological improvements when it comes to productivity at work and overall happiness with the job.

With positive psychological improvement comes superior health physically, all because something so minimal as noise is controlled.

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