One of the key advantages of an open office plan is also one of its key challenges. In workspaces where people connect easily and often, conversations ensue—chats where people share ideas and information. Unfortunately, some workers’ valuable conversations are others’ annoying distractions.
“Similar to speech privacy, deciding whether overheard conversations in the office are helpful or harmful to work is determined at the ear of the listener,” says Beck Johnson, Senior Research Specialist with the Workplace Research team at Haworth. As the open workplace evolves, employers need to address noise that sabotages production and job satisfaction.
A traditional technique for reducing the distraction of nearby conversation is sound masking, typically using consistent background “white noise.” However, these measures can fall short. The Haworth Human Performance Lab conducted a two-part study to see if biophilic sounds are a better way to mask noise distractions in open office plans.
What is Biophilic Sound?
Even if you’ve never heard the term biophilic sound, you have experienced it. Biophilic sounds come from nature. Wind blowing in the trees. Water lapping at the shore. Birds singing. These sounds have been part of the human experience since our beginning. Until industrialization, they were an integral part of daily life.
Our Process of Discovery
The aim of our research study was twofold. First, determine what factors affect the acceptance of biophilic soundscaping; and second, explore its efficacy. A pool of knowledge workers at a large mid-western manufacturer’s corporate headquarters were enlisted to help us on our path of discovery.
The first part of the study was a two-week assessment of worker perceptions as they went about their daily work under two different conditions: traditional white-noise sound masking and biophilic sound masking. These perceptions were compared with their baseline condition.
In the second part of the study, workers were assigned to one of four testing scenarios where their performance on focus tasks of both high and low effort were measured. Each of the four areas was set up with one of these conditions:
Under each condition, we measured the subjective effects in terms of satisfaction and perception. Objective effects, like task performance and attention, were measured by task accuracy and using Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), facial expressions and eye movement. The biophilic soundscape theme simulated the sound of a quiet babbling brook.
What the Research Shows
Two key findings emerged from the study:
Biophilic soundscaping allows people, on average, to perform as well as when in environments with traditional sound masking, if not better, depending on the task. Although these improvements seem small, noise and overheard speech in open-plan offices is one of the top complaints. These findings are encouraging in terms of a better solution for managing acoustics.
What This Means for Open-Office Workspaces
Just like having exposure to nature can help reduce employee stress through biophilic design, biophilic sounds that mimic nature can help people focus better. For open office designers, this means creating a soundscape that aligns the modes of work that take place in each zone. For example, desk areas call for a soundscape that supports focus, and a lounge area needs a soundscape that calms and relaxes employees.
Biophilic soundscaping, used in combination with other proven acoustical tactics that absorb sound and block transmission, can create an open office that supports productivity and privacy.
When you adopt a biophilic soundscape, employ good change management practices. Engage the people who will be using the space. When they understand their new environment—how it reduces distractions and improves focus—they’ll be more satisfied.
“When it comes to managing office sounds for focus work, the more predictable the soundscaping the better,” Beck says. “Having birds randomly chirping while trying to focus may frustrate people. A babbling brook (like in our study), may be better suited for focus work. This is why research is important. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to masking noise.”
To take a closer look at our study on biophilic soundscaping and its use in open-plan workspaces, read the complete report: Acceptance & Efficacy of Biophilic Soundscaping in an Open-Plan Office.