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How does a flexible office sound?

A laptop displaying Moodsonic's soundscape interface, which shows a workplace floorplan and information about the audio

This article was originally published in Designerati and Designer magazine. Click here to view the original piece.

The last few years have been a constant reminder of how quickly things can change. In the world of workplace there’s been recognition of the need for flexibility, like modular furniture systems and movable walls. But there’s a sensory element that’s often missing from the conversation about the future of the workplace.


To be specific, soundscapes – supportive background sound designed to improve employee experiences.  

But to explain why sound is so relevant to workplace flexibility, I first need to take you back a couple hundred thousand years.  

Our innate responses to biophilic sound

Before the days of urban living, we evolved for survival in nature. During that time, our ears were arguably our most important survival tool. Hearing is by far our fastest sense, and the time it takes us to process visual information is sluggishly slow in comparison! And, unlike our other senses, sound gives us 360 degrees of information. It could alert us to a rustling in the bushes behind us or to the fresh running water beyond the trees. Our sense of hearing adapted to understand many subtle qualities about a natural environment, all from the way it sounds.

Let me preface this next part by saying that there’s no one universal reaction to natural sound. The way people process sound is deeply personal. But, the evolutionary process did instil some common responses, which have been explored in hundreds of scientific papers. Birdsong, for example, tends to help us feel safe and secure, and its absence can indicate the presence of predators. (We know that other animals listen to birdsong for safety clues too, and that panicked birds can be stressful to listen to.) And, just as the dawn chorus was once our natural alarm clock, the sound of birds can actually trigger our bodies’ circadian rhythms, improving our sleep cycles and quality.

But why is this relevant to the workplace? Well, fast-forward to modern day and those reactions, hardwired into our biology, haven’t just disappeared. Despite the fact that we now spend most of our time indoors, we still harbour our innate responses to natural sound, even when it’s brought inside. The sounds of nature still affect us very quickly and very powerfully. So, carefully designed biophilic soundscapes can repurpose an entire space with the click of a button––no solid walls required.

Supporting changes in workplace strategy

Here’s an example of flexible soundscapes in action. Pre-pandemic, we worked with a major healthcare company to develop a soundscaping strategy for one of their offices. It’s a big space, fourteen storeys high. Over 100 audio zones were built into the system, which gave the client huge control over the sound in different spaces.  

At first, the majority of the workplace was dedicated to focussed work. So, if you were working in one of these areas you’d typically hear a soundscape that incorporated the sounds of a babbling brook. This sound is great for focus. It promotes optimal cognitive functioning (even better than silence!) and it masks distracting background sound in open spaces. The soundscape might change slowly and gradually throughout the day, but you wouldn’t hear any sudden unexpected events.

Then, a year later, the client overhauled their post-Covid workplace strategy. They moved to a hybrid work model and collaboration took centre stage. Despite the big strategic changes, the soundscapes could be easily reconfigured from zone to zone. A mix of more varied, stimulating soundscapes for collaboration and creative thinking were seamlessly introduced to support the new needs and distinguish the functionality of each space.

Flexibility on the fly

Workplace strategy is one thing, but people’s needs can change minute by minute. Soundscapes enable employees to create custom environments on the fly.

A small room that’s used for ideation in the morning might become a focus or relaxation space in the afternoon. Providing individual control of the soundscapes in such areas can have a massive impact on employee satisfaction. Research shows that dissatisfaction with sound (and an environment generally) is directly related to the level of perceived control people have over it.  

Creating a culture of choice doesn’t just come from user interfaces. Futurist John Naisbitt famously coined the term “high tech/high touch”, denoting the balance between making the most of technology while also keeping experiences organic. Choosing the right soundscape can be an intuitive, organic process too. Soundscapes can create a sensory ecosystem of spaces for people to navigate between––from calm and relaxing through to dynamic and energetic. This is a particularly important consideration for neurodiverse employees, who often have heightened or diminished sensitivity to sound.

Soundscapes can even respond in real-time to sensor inputs, creating different soundscapes based on changing occupancy levels, or to minimise the disruptive impact of a loud conversation. As an environment changes, so too can the soundscape.

A universal language

Everyone’s needs are different, but sound is a universal language that people intuitively understand. That’s a potential superpower when it comes to workspace design. No moving parts, just a beautifully simple, organic way of reimagining spaces and giving employees control over their environment.  

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