When someone says "office design", we tend to default to thinking of the physical architectural attributes we see with our eyes: the perceptible shapes, spatial elements and finishes that comprise that work place.
But what about the "invisible architecture" of offices? Attributes we may not necessarily be able to see with our eyes, but are no less part of our experience of inhabiting that building?
Most important (yet often chronically overlooked) of these invisible design elements, is sound. That’s precisely what the likes of leading expert on the matter, Julian Treasure, are on a mission to improve.
Let’s consider why, when it comes to workplace design, sound really does matter...
The four ways that sound affects us all
In a couple of illuminating TED talks on the subject, Treasure compellingly outlines the case for sound as being so crucial to our ability to create, collaborate and produce meaningfully in the workplace. First off, in this talk from 2009, Treasure unpicks the four key ways that sound influences us, for better or worse.
These influences can be thought of as:
Physiological: our bodies respond to distressing or alarming sounds by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol, whilst instantly increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. In contrast, a soothing, congruent background noise can relieve stress and help us find our flow.
Psychological: music in particular can have an incredibly powerful impact on our emotions (the emotional response that a playlist titled, Thrash heavy metal vs. one tagged as, Relaxing classical will elicit are likely to vary drastically).
Cognitive: we humans have a pretty small bandwidth of incoming noise we can process at any one time, and actually make sense of. When you’re attempting to concentrate over the sounds of loud voices in the foreground, getting anything done is tough (draw your own conclusions on the influence of open plan offices, as Treasure himself does).
Behavioural: we all wish to avoid unpleasant noises and move away from them when they’re experienced, whilst being drawn to, and happy to spend extended amounts of time surrounded by, pleasant sounds that put us at ease. In other words: as humans we’re constantly taking action to calibrate our incoming noise levels to suit our preferences.
The science of "good" sound
In a second, equally fascinating TED address, Treasure declares: it’s time to start designing physical spaces, not only with our eyes, but with our ears. Incongruent, unexpected and attention-sapping noise in offices is shown to make people less helpful, less likely to embrace teamwork, and less productive - strongly supported by scientific studies on the matter.
So the question is: just what is the optimum soundscape for the creation of the ultimately concentrated and creative workplace? Well, studies such as this one being carried out by Juliet Zhu are seeking answers to just that question - and the results aren’t quite as obvious as you might expect.
Zhu’s research suggests that whilst (as you might expect) high levels of background noise impair our productivity, the same is also true of very low level noise. Their suggestion is that actually, a moderate level of ambient noise (somewhere between "too loud" and "silence") achieves optimum concentration and creative flow.
We’re already seeing some pretty interesting applications of this theory. Literally. For instance, Brain.FM is an online application that claims to "convert auditory neuroscience into personalized brainwave training programs". In other words: it plays pleasant background noise through your earphones to improve your concentration and working performance.
The science of designing sound for work is still evolving. But it seems that architects and business leaders alike are increasingly being encouraged to give far more thought to the ways in which their offices are designed not only as places to physically inhabit, but as places that are experienced through our senses.
Meanwhile, as individual employees, we can become more mindful of the sounds around us, and learn to more proactively map our soundscape to the work we’re trying to do, for a more productive and happier working life.