In the not-too-distant future we might all be able to walk around an office to a ‘personalised bio-soundscape’ to boost our mood and creativity. The sound of falling rain perhaps. Or the gentle rolling of waves. Eye of the Tiger before really important meetings. Or that song from Chariots of Fire when you arrive in the morning. Anyway… the point is that workplace noise is having its moment in the spotlight.
For many people, lockdown working managed to oscillate between either eerie quiet or feeling like you were in the middle of a playground. It left us, the collective workforce, hypersensitive to sounds. We are also on far more video calls than ever before, which requires people to speak more loudly than if they were just having a normal conversation with the person next to them.
As the focus of office design shifts from mere visuals to an immersive ‘experience‘, people are becoming more conscious of the effect workplace soundscape can have. It’s not just about productivity and time management, but also the overall happiness of employees.
Experience designer Layne Braunstein has a clear vision of the future, and it involves wearing a ring with biosensors. She sets out the scenario: “You walk into an office building on the day of a big client meeting. You’re feeling anxious […] Slip on an electronic ring provided by the receptionist, and a soothing sound that seemingly only you can hear begins to envelope your space.”
Through AI, sensors in office lobbies and in the ring, and directional speakers, she has created a building that can read people’s moods and then generate a personalised soundtrack to fit it. This may sound futuristic, but is this where the office is heading?
In the zone
Of course many offices already have music playing. But what’s motivating to one person is mind bending for another, so this notion of a personalised soundtrack has a growing appeal. Until directional speakers and mood sensors become widely available technology though, paying attention to office design can help employers ensure noise doesn’t negatively impact their workers.
For people coming into a head office now (as opposed to working closer to home) there has to be a meaningful gain from it. At its most simplistic level, there need to be areas where workers can concentrate. Trends in modern office design are often now focussed on creating zones that people can use to fit their needs at any given time. That’s why at Spaces we offer a range of places within each office — like the café-delis, or cosy booths. There are living room style areas with music and private offices for phone calls or those moments where you need to get your head down. There are big open spaces too, if you’re one of those people who thrives off a bit of background bustle. As Microsoft’s Global Workplace Services’ CVP Michael Ford says: “You must design workplaces with enough flexibility to support every employee. A mix of quiet places, collaboration areas, and touch-down locations helps ensure everyone can be connected, engaged, and productive.”
Bosses at Meta created their own version of a flexible, agile workplace, and true to form, it sits on the quirkier side of standard. When staff complained about the post-lockdown raised noise levels, bosses brought in sound architects to help fix it. In came The Cube – a moveable, curving screen, made from recycled PET plastic, which can absorb much of the sound that strikes it. It allows workers to build their own cubicles (like the ones that were all the rage in the 80s), and then dismantle them when the meeting finishes or the work is done.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Meta is also ‘testing a system that plays ambient noises ranging from footsteps on pebbles to waves crashing’ to help mask other people’s conversations and adding carpets and sound absorbing ceiling tiles to dampen the sounds.
The thing is though, creating the right atmosphere by dampening voices, muting conversations, and introducing soundscapes all sounds like a tricky balancing act. A more immediate approach, and arguably a more simplistic one, is to provide your employees with a choice of places to work, not just within a single office, but in a number of offices in a variety of different locations. Mood, stress, workload – it’s all variable and there is no one size fits all way to deal with it. But by providing choice you can give your employees room to build their own perfect working environment, and that’s always when the best work is done.
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