With less privacy and personal space, surviving an open office can be hard work.
But new research reveals one possible trick that could immensely help boost your focus and mood amidst the bustle of an open floor plan: listening to
sounds of nature.
“Besides the feeling of being cramped, with disruptive nearby conversations that you shouldn’t hear or don’t want to hear, smaller, open work spaces can have broader implications,” Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behaviour and Thrive in Your Job,” previously told Business Insider.
The implications are an overwhelming decrease in people’s ability to focus and get work done.
But the decrease in productivity isn’t caused by noise in general, Cambridge Sound Management acoustical expert Justin Stout told Fast Company last year — distractions from intelligible sound force us to shift focus from our work to figuring out what someone is saying. Speech distracts about 48% of office workers according to a 2008 study.
Some offices attempt to alleviate these distractions with sound masking, the acoustic technique of adding an unobtrusive background sound to a room so that speech is rendered virtually unintelligible.
But while random steady state electronic noise — often referred to as white noise — is currently the most common sound funneled into offices these days, a new study from researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute could change all that.
In previous studies lead by Jonas Braasch, an acoustician and musicologist at RPI, researchers found that people’s ability to regain focus improved when they were exposed to sounds of nature like ocean waves, a babbling brook, or rain.
Braasch’s current study now investigates whether natural sounds may be used as an alternative to white noise and challenges the convention that background sound should be as meaningless as possible.
The study exposes participants to three sounds while performing a task that requires focus: typical office noises masked by white noise, office noises masked by natural sound, and typical office noises with no sound mask.
The natural sound used in the experiment was designed to mimic the sound of flowing water in a mountain stream.
“The mountain stream sound possessed enough randomness that it did not become a distraction,” explained Braasch’s graduate student Alana DeLoach in a press release. “This is a key attribute of a successful masking signal.”
The researchers noted in their study abstract that sounds of nature can mask intelligible speech just as well as white noise, and it also enhances cognitive functioning, optimises the ability to concentrate, and increases overall worker satisfaction.
The next time you’re driven to distraction by coworkers, you could try blasting the sweet, sweet tunes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here’s a ten-hour track to get you started.
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