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How Sound Affects Your Work Performance

How Sound Affects Your Work Performance

A sound-free workplace isn’t feasible, no matter how hard we try. But what sounds are good for your productivity—and what sounds to avoid? Read on to learn!

Kayla Matthews
Kayla Matthews
Tech & Lifestyle Journalist

No matter what your profession is, there’s something that always surrounds you in the workplace—

 

Sounds. 

 

And noises.

 

Sure, for some of you—those working at construction sites, concert halls, or audio production studios—certain sounds are part of your jobs. But obviously, not all sounds are natural to any workplace. Even if you don’t think about it or pay attention to it every day, background noise is always there when you work and it’s pretty impossible to avoid (unless you use noise-canceling headphones which aren’t necessarily safe on most job sites). 

 

A sound-free workplace isn’t feasible, no matter how much management tries to enforce such a rule. However, you can still learn about what sound can do in a work environment. So here’s the big question—

 

How does sound affect your work performance?

 

And why is it so important?

 

Because learning about and knowing how sound affects you at work can help you make better choices. Whether you're the one making the noise or you're trying to work in a place with constant chatter of some kind, you can learn what you need to do to improve your and your co-workers' performance. Let's start with some fundamentals.

 

The Volume Makes a Difference

 

Different levels of volume can affect various types of tasks. Researchers have found sound can provide varying results during manual work, impacting error rate and the amount of time spent on them. Studies have proven noise measuring 110 decibels or above negatively impacted tasks, yet noise kept between 70 to 90 decibels showed no ill effects.

 

Noise isn't always detrimental, though. Sometimes, you can use it to keep pace and allow you to work to the beat in a continuous flow. A different study showed low to moderate levels of ambient noise help people with more creative tasks, like writing or painting. 

 

Ambiance can help people focus and remain in the moment with their work. Often, the kind of noise doesn't matter, as long as it's low and doesn't include conversations or sudden changes.

 

Human Noises Are More Distracting Than Machine-Made Ones

 

Alan Hedge, a workplace design expert with Cornell University, presented research suggesting noisy co-workers are more distracting than any other sounds throughout an office, like ringing phones or working printers. He said we're used to tuning out repetitive noises, like those from machines. 

 

At the same time, conversations, intermittent noises or high-pitched sounds are more likely to gain our attention. Our base instincts practically force us to listen to what our minds think is valuable.

 

When it comes to spoken conversations, we can sometimes tune them out.

 

However, conversations that have a specific tone of voice, an abnormal volume or those based on a topic that might interest us have a better chance of making us less productive. When others are talking, they almost always remove our attention from our work.

 

The Use of White Noise

 

When it comes to a quiet work environment or privacy, nothing is more distracting than an open office floor plan. 

 

With everyone working in such close quarters, it can be challenging to keep on task. Some employers have taken to using white noise soundtracks to help with concentration. Incredibly, there is some evidence to suggest this helps productivity in the workplace.

 

Other research found listening to nature sounds while you work is just as effective as white noise. The study from the Acoustical Society of America said people often get back to work with more focus quicker if they're listening to nature sounds instead of machine or human noises.

 

White noise, a mixture of frequencies from about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, has a masking effect that covers existing sounds with more pleasant frequencies. With white noise, people don't hear workplace noises as intensely as they would without.

 

No Clear-Cut Answers About Music

 

The verdict still hasn't come out on whether music helps in the workplace. Perhaps it depends on the music, type of work or particular person, but hard research finds trouble supporting this topic either way.

 

One study from Cornell University said happy, upbeat music has a positive effect that makes people more cooperative. Another study found music distracts people when they're trying to learn something new.

 

At least, we can agree music can have an impact on our moods. For those who find themselves anxious at work, music can help combat anxiety, effectively distracting that person from their bad feelings to change their mood to something more positive. So music can help, depending on the task and situationbut not all the time, and not for everyone.

 

What About Podcasts?

 

There aren't as many studies about listening to podcasts at work as there are for music, likely because the medium is still relatively new. 

 

Podcasts are almost like radio talk shows, depending on what you find to listen to, so they make for background noise sometimes. That said, they aren't the best at keeping you motivated on a particular task, especially if the work or the podcast takes a lot of mental capacity.

 

Podcasts often use narrative or sound effects to keep listeners coming back. We've already established conversations and other people are the worst distractions in the workplace, so a podcast would likely only make those distractions worse. After all, their goal is to gain your attention and make you want to listen more.

 

That said, if you’re working on an extremely tedious task that doesn’t require a lot of focus, listening to podcasts, especially those related to your job, can be a cool way to expand your professional skills!

 

Tips to Maximize Your Workflow in a Noisy Environment

 

If you have to deal with noise in your workplace, there are a few things you can do to remain productive at work. (And I’m not talking about microdosing.) 

 

Completely blocking out the noise is an option with the aforementioned noise-canceling headphones or even earplugs, but there's a chance you could miss something important. If you work in a cubicle, you can ask your manager to perhaps install sound-absorbing panels in the office, or see if you can use an app for white noise. 

 

There’s no guarantee it will help you become more productive but there is some encouraging research—I’d say it surely is worth a shot!

 

While some types of noise in a workplace can hinder a lot of tasks, others can help in certain situations, too. If you're nervous about an upcoming meeting or presentation, some music or nature sounds can help soothe you a bit. In these cases, the noise can help you be more productive.

 

What Works for You?

 

Noise affects various people differently, but it definitely is something ever-present in our workplaces. And yet, so few people think about it!

 

If you find workplace noise is bothering you, it's time to get creative in discovering ways to cancel it out, especially when you work in close quarters with a bunch of other people.

 

Don't assume this is a hopeless problem. Finding out your best solution for fewer distractions while you work is an excellent start on the path to better productivity. Whether you're asking a boss about white noise music or bringing some earplugs in from home, whatever helps you work at your best can only lead to positivity. 

 

Feeling great about yourself and your work is worth any amount of time and problem-solving.

 

So, what do you think?

 

Do you feel affected by noise in your workplace? What noises, in particular, are difficult to cope with? Maybe you have your own strategy for tackling work-related sounds? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

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Kayla Matthews
Kayla Matthews
Kayla Matthews, a productivity-obsessed Pittsburgh native, is a tech and lifestyle journalist who writes about time-saving techniques and tools for a more efficient life. In the past, she's worked with Lifewire, MakeUseOf, The Week, Inc, and more. To read more of her work, visit ProductivityBytes.com
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