Every office has its own set of sounds, whether it is the ringing of phones and the whirring of printers, the radio or other music, or just Chatty Kathy who never stops talking. While the noise can be annoying or distracting, is it not better than working in absolute silence?

The level and type of noise in your workspace can be determined by personal preferences, but studies have also shown that certain types of sounds have different effects on office workers and their productivity.

Research is divided on the topic. Many studies have found that background noise, such as outside city sounds, traffic, conversations, music and general hubbub, are distracting and degrading to work productivity. Other researchers, however, support the notion that background noise can improve concentration and productivity. So, what is the answer?

Well, firstly, it depends on your personal preferences of sound over silence. Secondly, an important finding to take away from this kind of research is that controlled noise is more effective at promoting better work while uncontrolled noise is not. This means that the sounds you choose to have in your office are probably helpful, while unwanted sounds like car hooters or incessant chatting will impede your work.

Ever heard of noise pollution?

Noise pollution is the loud, annoying or harmful sound emissions that can seriously ruin your work productivity. These include noises such as traffic, engines, machinery, and the like. Keep the outside city noises out of your work space to reduce noise pollution. Here are some helpful ways to reduce noise pollution at work:

  • Close the windows to block out noise.
  • Move desks and workstations away from road-facing sides of the building to quieter areas of the building.
  • Invest in quality office equipment that emits less noise.

What about music?

The inclusion of music in a work environment has generated a lot of debate. A lot of research shows that happy and upbeat music promotes productivity, creativity and resourcefulness while working. Nevertheless, there are those that feel their work suffers when music is playing. This may have to do with a person’s ability to multitask; people who prefer single-track focus are more distracted by music while multitaskers can accommodate the additional task of listening to music while they work.

When it comes to music in the workplace, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose instrumental music with no lyrics and a steady rhythm. Lyrics and words are more distracting, and music that fluctuates in pace and tone can change the mood of the office.
  • Choose slightly upbeat, ‘happy’ music to keep motivation levels high. Moody and mellow music can make employees feel tired or miserable.
  • Play classical or ambient music if your work involves numbers, accounting, mathematics, problem-solving or attention to detail.
  • Play pop or dance music if your work involves data entry, data checking, proof-reading and lots of deadlines.
  • For something alternative and interesting, play a selection of video game soundtracks – they are designed to be stimulating without distracting.
  • Music can encourage cooperation and good relationships in the office.
  • If too many office workers disagree on music preferences, why not have silence in the office but allow each employee to listen to their own music with headphones.
  • Headphones can also help block out unwanted noises that are distracting.

General office noises

These can be either stimulating or counter-productive. Having an overall busy, ‘buzzing’ work environment can feel like productive work is happening and put you in the mood for working. Hearing the effects of others being productive is motivating and encouraging.

Too much of these sounds can become a negative influence though. Repetitive noises, like a constantly whirring printer or incessant phone ringing, are distracting and annoying. Here are some general tips for employees to keep annoying sounds to a minimum:

  • Be respectful and mindful of others.
  • Keep your personal phone or pager on vibrate or low volume.
  • Avoid wearing shoes (especially heels) that click on the floor.
  • Announce when you’re going to be doing something particularly noisy for the next few minutes, and apologise for the disturbance.
  • Keep office chatter to relevant occasions.
  • Make important announcements at designated times and not interspersed randomly throughout the day.

The consensus

A good and healthy working environment is one where employees are happy and enjoy working together. People are highly stimulated by sounds. If your employees are positively stimulated by what they are hearing, they are likely to be in a better mood and thus, the level of productivity and quality of work will be improved. Perhaps discuss the topic of noise in the office with your employees to find what works best for everyone.

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