What Are The Impacts Of Noise On Workplace Productivity?

Office workers spend most of their day in a noisy environment, whether it’s the sound of co-workers talking, printers whirring away or A/C unit humming gently, office workers are constantly dealing with background noise.

In fact, according to Cornell University researchers, background noise levels in an office typically hover around 65dB. So how does this decibel level affect your ability to work well during your 9-5?

The cost of being interrupted from work was investigated by a team of researchers from the University of California and Humboldt University. They found that a subject who had been interrupted experiences more time pressure, a higher level of frustration, a higher level of stress and an increase in perceived effort.

So overall it could be said that after experiencing an interruption the worker felt worse off and the quality of work suffered.

Even after neutralising the source of the disturbance, it takes 23 minutes on average to get your mind fully back to the state of flow you had been distracted from!

Is silence or background noise better for working?

I like my podcasts to help me get through the day and have a few playlists that normally tick over at a low volume during long shifts.

Regardless of how engaging a story is I reflexively reach for the ‘pause’ or ‘mute’ button wherever a more challenging mental problem presents itself. It seems that I need absolute silence to dig deep and apply myself fully.

My story is similar to a study on the effect of background music and noise on task performance which found that “performance was lessened across all cognitive tasks in the presence of background sound (music or noise) compared to silence”.

However, when it’s especially quiet, such as in a home office when you’re the only occupant, nothing is keeping your brain occupied and stimulated enough to prevent distraction rearing its ugly head.

In this scenario our mind naturally begins to wonder when the next distraction is going to arrive. And when a spike in noise does arrive it appears relatively loud enough to knock our focus irrespective of volumes involved.

Productivity and background noise

Background noise could be any form of noise with common examples being distant road traffic, conservation and machinery operating.

However noise disturbance comes in many forms and it’s important to understand they are not always related to volume.

A dripping tap once heard is difficult to ignore, and soon becomes a constant distraction. This is classed as more of a meaningful noise than a loud one.

This grouping relates to the noise being not so loud enough to present an immediate distraction itself but certainly enough to become annoying if it isn’t your preference.

The task being undertaken at work definitely also has a bearing on whether music or background noise could be a productivity aid or a negative influence.

Repetitive simple tasks, or tasks that can be undertaken with minimal mental strain were completed to a higher standard when background music is being played. This is put down to the fact that noise was a welcome distraction from the boredom of work and kept the workers psychologically engaged.

White noise is another type of background noise that is commonly branded as beneficial to productivity.

White noise is a type of noise that is produced by combining sounds of all many different frequencies together. It’s labelled “white” noise because it is comparable to the colour white in that the colour white isn’t a single wavelength but a combination wavelengths of all other colours.

The combination of frequencies in white noise can be used to mask over sounds from other sources. The theory goes that if you listen to white noise it will help block out distracting noises and allow full concentration to be achieved.

In a study that compared exposure to ‘meaningful background noises’ such as music and speech vs white noise the results showed that participants faired poorer on memory and maths test when ‘meaningful noises’ were heard.

This suggests that work related conversations might actually decrease the productivity of fellow office workers in earshot of your chat.

Does noise sensitivity impact focus?

Noise sensitivity is one aspect that will undoubtedly impact upon whether silence or background noise hits your sweet spot of focus and productivity.

Some people are able to zone out and focus on the task in hand irrespective of whether an aeroplane passing overhead causes the windows to shake. Others, like me, listen out for and try to explain every single sound that I hear.

And this, noise sensitivity, is unfortunately a trait which is not easily explained away without overlapping into subjective preferences and other character traits.

The most relevant study I could find to demonstrate this were experiments that showed introverts had higher sensitivity to noise during mental performance compared to extroverts.

The best option may therefore be to test for yourself whether meaningless background noise (including white noise) helps you to concentrate and focus better than silence. This can be done using a free app called Noisili.

Noisili is a productivity app available on all platforms (including as a Chrome Extension) that bills itself as the digital place for focus.

It allows you to create your own personal noise soundscape out of wide selection of popular natural and urban sounds to helps promote concentration and focus no matter what your working environment.

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