Can Acoustics Impact Productivity In The Workplace?

Many modern offices and workplaces are touching up their area’s views, vibes, and colors to better improve morale, employee moods, and productivity. But what about how the office sounds? 

Using earth-old technologies, like acoustic felt panels, has been found to help solve modern solutions in improving efficiency and productivity in the workplace, usually without employees even noticing. A study by the BBC illustrates how the acoustic properties of our houses, offices, and public spaces can affect our mood and the way we behave. 

For instance, the sounds of a basketball bouncing in an empty gymnasium sound different than in a bathroom, and may change the way we react to the sound. The way sound behaves in a structure dictates a building or room’s voice. 

Some environments, like a crowded, carpeted doctor’s office with a low hum of nervous patients twiddling their thumbs, phones ringing, and a clock ticking can produce innately uneasy feelings. Others, like an empty concert hall, can provide a calm, soothing atmosphere as sound dances freely about the room. 

The way a building or room reacts to sound in its atmosphere has been coined “aural architecture” by Barry Blesser, a former electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There’s a growing belief that acoustics should be considered in the planning of a building, which has thrown a new cork in the way architects design structures. 

Are There Basic Rules for Acoustics and Humans? 

Sort of, although it’s mostly a matter of feeling. Have you ever set your phone speaker in a cup to magnify its sound? A noisy or sound-polluted room can cripple productivity as humans attempt to focus through the buzz. Ancient amphitheaters were designed to carry noise across a crowd of thousands without using a microphone. Historical cities used acoustics as a public address system for their citizens. Some basic, scientific-research-based rules include: 

  • Noisy and sound-cluttered areas annoy and distract humans 
  • Concentration in the workplace is often caused by distracting noise, which significantly reduces productivity and performance
  • Studies have found that living in a crowded house can cause a feeling of helplessness
  • Rooms with higher ceilings are thought to encourage free thinking from the free feelings humans feel in them 

Where architects used to only focus on sonic aspects of buildings in places like concert halls, etc., more and more buildings are being constructed with these factors in mind. In an office setting, important aspects for employees would include a plethora of space to work, high ceilings if possible, and hardwood floors as opposed to carpet. Buildings can be tailor-made to promote feelings of calm, exhilaration, tightness, and tranquility. 

According to the BBC article, a study on how ancient buildings’ acoustics and their impacts on brain function included a bit about the magic tone of 110 hertz (Hz). In the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5,000-year-old Maltese temple underground, there is what’s known as the Oracle Room. If a person’s voice hits 110Hz in this room, the sound is magnified, and amplified, twirling around the room to the point of being almost “felt as a tingle through the skin.” 

Later studies found a tone of 110Hz reduced activity in the brain’s language centers and shifted activity to the brain’s emotional areas. This alone proves a room’s sonic composition can invoke emotion and impact mood. 

Therapy rooms for sonic treatment for patients with depression, PTSD, autism, and other conditions have been proven to provide relief.

What Can I Do To Make My Office More Acoustically Pleasing?

Despite not being able to control the physical components of your building’s infrastructure (in most cases), you can make some tweaks in your workplace that may go a long way in improving acoustics. 

Choose sound-absorbing materials for walls. Hard, solid walls will reflect sound right back to you, compared to adding softer materials along the walls, such as plants, felt panels, art, or other additions. If you have sound bouncing off of hard walls in every direction, it can produce a clear (or subliminal) cluttered atmosphere for noise. Using acoustic panels or textiles can soften a particular area of the office dedicated to conversation or collaboration and absorb sound. 

If you have the space, try dedicated work areas. If certain employees require a private and quiet area to conduct their work, and others need a high-energy environment for collaboration, try using dedicated work zones to tailor the areas to the employees’ needs. 

Try baffles or clouds: Acoustics panels suspended from the ceiling, (clouds are hung horizontally in a series and baffles hang vertically in a series) are highly effective at absorbing sound and reducing noise. 

Add plants to the office: Plants tend to absorb sound through their leaves and branches and liven up a workspace with fresh air and natural aesthetics. 

Add white noise to empty, open-concept areas: While most sound adjustments involve reducing or eliminating excess sound, often comforting background noise, particularly in a large, open area, can be soothing for employees. These are called noise-masking systems, which can eliminate distracting noises by encompassing them.

Can Noise Be Hazardous to Workers? 

According to the Canada Safety Council, noise has been an occupational hazard for years in certain workplaces. Even at the lowest levels, unwanted noise can be seen as health and safety hazards by their ability to increase stress, cripple concentration, and impair communication. At high levels, unwanted sounds can cause hearing loss, nausea, headaches and migraines. 

Most offices and buildings have noise exposure guidelines, but generally, most are well within the safe range for potential noise hazards or violations that could result in damage to an employee’s hearing, usually hovering around 45 to 60 decibels (dB). The CDC says noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. Loud noises above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears.

Can noise be hazardous to workers? The answer is yes, but usually it just makes them uncomfortable at the worst. Using acoustic tricks, like felt wall tiles, to make your workspace more pleasing will lead to improved focus, mood, and productivity. Because each employee is different, it’s a good idea to have an open discussion with the employees to get on the same page about each person’s acoustic needs, preferences, and sensitivities.