Now that more employers are transitioning to open-plan offices, workers increasingly get to enjoy all clacking of keyboards and yakking of their colleagues—sorry, “spontaneous collaborative input.”
In tandem with move away from cubicles and toward communal work benches, some offices have also started using sound-masking white noise in order to allay distractions, improve focus, and reduce the number of mutinies that can occur when someone overhears the same tired joke for the fourth time in one day. The idea is that this background noise can help make conversations unintelligible from several feet away, even when everyone is in one large room.
But researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute think they might have stumbled on a better solution. In an experiment, they sat 12 participants in an open office and asked them to do a task that required close attention. They tested the subjects while playing three different types of sounds:
Typical office noises (printers, typing, chatting) masked with standard machine-generated white noise:
The same office sounds, but masked with a more natural, flowing-water sound:
The same office soundscape with no masker:
Those who heard the “natural” sounds were able to regain focus much faster than those who heard either the machine-generated white noise or the silence (the office soundscape). There was no difference in the participants’ cognitive performance between the typical white noise and the natural sound, but half the subjects said they preferred the water sound to the other two. Silence was the runner-up, with five votes. The researchers presented their findings at the recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Pittsburgh.
It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a very small study, and it’s not published yet. The researchers have said they want to do further follow-ups.
One day we’ll all be able to toil in the ideal workspace: A large, sealed cardboard box with airholes punched in it. In the meantime, listening to burbling streams might be a helpful trick for open-office workers who find themselves hacking away at something urgent and getting distra—
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