The “typical” office layout is changing.
Partitions are disappearing. Cube-heavy offices are now cubeless. Open spaces and natural light are top priorities. But this move toward a more open, collaborative space has an interesting drawback, the Harvard Business Review noted in March 2015: noise.
As the walls fell in workspaces, noise made its rise. There are no barriers to dampen sound, and now experts are saying noise levels have become the No. 1 drain on employee morale.
In fact, one study noted that employees lose more than an hour a day to noise distractions.
“Further, a 2014 study by Steelcase and Ipsos found that workers lost as much as 86 minutes per day due to noise distractions,” Harvard Business Review wrote. “Almost any office worker could share a story or two about annoying, loud, or obnoxious distractions – whether it be a coworker, a loud printer, a noisy heating and air conditioning system, or the ring of a cell phone.”
Another study from the University of California Berkeley found the same prevalence of noise-related dissatisfaction.
“After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of ‘speech privacy,’ making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere,” the New York Times reported in 2012.
Workplaces have responded to this growing annoyance by implementing noise systems (white and pink), a constant stream of low-level sound that deadens noises and increases privacy. In one sense, this seems a little backwards. How can you reduce noise by adding noise?
The answer to that question lies in science, and the buzzword has become “sound masking,” a new category of acoustics that includes white noise.
The Science Behind Using Noise to Combat Noise
There are two main types of noise that offices pump into their workspaces to dampen sounds and conversations: pink and white.
Pink noise is varying octaves of the same frequency. Think of a pianist playing every octave of “C”. It’s all the same sound, but it includes low, mid and high octaves.
For an office purposes, pink noise implements a range of octaves for the frequency of the human voice. It often sounds like a soft whooshing noise. So, while the sound coming from speakers is barely noticeable (think air-conditioning kinds of sounds), it’s actually matching the sound waves created by the human voice.
Now, pink noise isn’t just a remedy for loud offices. The audio tool has also been used in sleep machines.
“What’s going on here?” asked Prevention magazine reporter Markham Heid in a 2012 article. “Sound plays a big role in brain activity and brain wave synchronization even while you’re sleeping … The steady drone of pink noise slows and regulates your brain waves, which is a hallmark of super-restful sleep.”
In-office pink noise doesn’t quite put you to sleep, but the constant, repetitive sounds literally drown out conversations and increase the privacy of your office.
Whereas pink noise is different octaves of the same frequency, white noise is a combination of various frequencies packed into one channel of sound.
When someone pumps white noise into a room, it muddies the sounds of everything that’s going on and, like pink noise, can create a relaxed environment.
We like how Live Science described the theory behind white noise:
“Let’s say two people are talking at the same time. Your brain can normally ‘pick out’ one of the two voices and actually listen to it and understand it. If three people are talking simultaneously, your brain can probably still pick out one voice. However, if 1,000 people are talking simultaneously, there is no way that your brain can pick out one voice. It turns out that 1,000 people talking together sounds a lot like white noise. So when you turn on a fan to create white noise, you are essentially creating a source of 1,000 voices.”
We’ve been in workplaces that have used white noise and there’s a significant reduction in noise. It’s pretty amazing – and simple – technology.
How Do You Get Pink/White Noise into Your Office?
There are a variety of contractors who can install noise systems into your office. Software company Autodesk implemented a noise system after learning it could make human voices unintelligible past 20 feet away.
According to the New York Times, Autodesk turned off their pink noise for a day to get a sense of how much it impacted the workplace.
Autodesk told the newspaper the results of the little experiment were very clear, with employees complaining that “something was different” but they didn’t quite know what it was.
Other executives have lauded the strategy’s effectiveness in increasing privacy in their open-office layouts.
“You can see what’s going around you, and people can see you, but you can still have a private conversation without disturbing anyone around you,” one company exec told the Times. “We’re a culture of people who work better with a buzz around us, but that buzz needs to be manageable.”