We all need a quiet place from time to time where we can think. Heading into the mountains or deep into the dense canopies of the forest and, for the more adventurous, even free diving or silent meditation retreats. These are activities where we can recharge, let go and calm our thoughts, soothe emotions and tap into the reserves of strength to face the challenges of the modern world of work. Having access to a quiet place plays a huge factor in our mental and physical wellbeing. As companies seek greater efficiencies, with open plan offices, greater transparency and flat hierarchies, then the range of sounds and potentially distracting noise increases, which can be exhausting for many.
Today, as the compartmentalised cubicles of the 1980s have rapidly been replaced by open plan environments modelled on Silicon valley start-ups turned giants, a new phenomena of background/ambient noise has become an occupational hazard for office workers. Whether it’s a loud colleague, the tap tap tap of a dozen keyboards, a vending machine or someone munching happily at their desk, ambient noise levels are given the lowest priority when it comes to designing offices. Background noise can also take the form of conversations, air conditioning units, printers, or the traffic outside. According to a 2016 study from Steelcase in 17 countries, a third of all workers felt disengaged due to their noisy workplaces.
Noise – from the Latin word nausia or disgust — is also rooted in noxia, which means damage or injury. Among those sensitive to noise an alarming condition has been noted, misophonia, where even the slightest noises such as someone coughing, rustling papers, or even laughter can lead to uncontrollable outbursts of anger. A study by Cornell University discovered that open office noise, and other sounds which often accompany increased epinephrine levels, trigger fight-or-flight responses in the body. Decreased productivity, resentment between colleagues and an inability to concentrate can have severe effects on the health of workers, leading to stress-related leave, frayed tempers and an unpleasant office environment. Due to the Lombard Effect, people end up talking more loudly in noisy offices, leading to an amplification of the original problem. It is the highly sensitive workers who are often the first casualties (the canaries in the coalmine), leaving them unable to function. Effectively, the best staff are rendered incapable and, if conditions are left unremedied, may leave for another more suitable environment.
“Annoyance is the most common response to noise”, according to Dr. Wolfgang Babisch, a lead researcher in the field of environmental noise and a senior research officer at the German Federal Environmental Agency.
Conversely, creating silent environments through the use of office pods can have a remarkable healing effect, as described in the research by Italian physicist Lucian Bernardi. His findings indicated that periods of silence following a session of music (exposure to noise) led to a relaxing effect on the brain. His original studies into the therapeutic effect of music showed that it was the contrast, the blank pauses, that were most beneficial and they became the most important aspect of his studies.
Noise is now being acknowledged as interfering with the art of ‘getting things done’. We need new solutions to balance the absence of the old-fashioned cubicle. An office phone booth, for example, can mitigate the impact of a loud, but highly capable, office worker doing their job and allow others to remain undistracted. Highly tuned professionals are often a firm’s best asset and failing to understand their needs and requirements can be a nightmare for the HR department. The smart companies have begun to erect silent pods, a much appreciated and necessary sanctuary from noise, where complicated tasks can be completed without interruption and distraction. Today there are far more economically viable solutions for noise reduction rather than redesigning/rebuilding an office or losing valuable employees and productivity to the perils of ambient noise. These solutions are places of silence that solve the issue of ambient noise in the workplace and delight both customers and workers with the reprieve.
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence (Simon & Garfunkel)