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Rethinking workplace noise: Taking inspiration from nature

A biophilic building, rich with greenery, with soundscape sound waves floating by

This article was originally published in IFMA’s FMJ. Click here to read the article and the full magazine (Jan-Feb 2024).

At the beginning of human history, the built environment looked very different from how it does now. It consisted of caves, huts and temporary dwellings before more permanent structures began to be formed from materials like clay, mudbricks and stone.

As Stephen Kellert, a renowned professor of social ecology, points out, humans evolved in “a sensory world dominated by critical environmental features such as light, sound, wind, weather, water, vegetation, animals, and landscapes”. The move to predominantly urban environments is a historically recent phenomenon.

In the midst of all the change sweeping workplace and commercial real estate, it’s particularly useful to think back to the natural environments humans occupied for most of our history. Doing so reminds us of some basic needs—the foundations of healthy and comfortable buildings—which have been neglected.

Our sense of hearing is exceptional, both in its power over us and the degree to which our buildings have frustrated it. Hearing is the body’s early warning system. Our ears are always on, even while we sleep. They give us extraordinarily detailed information about our surroundings, in all directions. And of all the senses, hearing is the one that affects people the fastest.

It’s no surprise, then, that complaints about noise are top of the list in modern workplaces. Some spaces are stressful and distracting; others lack privacy. Some are too quiet, while others are too loud. And after years of solitude working from home, these problems have only intensified as people return to the office. Leesman’s research this year found that dealing with issues relating to noise is the environmental change that could make the greatest positive difference to employees’ experiences in the physical workplace.

Workplace soundscaping

Soundscaping is the act of bringing designed sound into an indoor environment to support people. While often designed to be subtle and ambient, it’s nonetheless a profound change from how sound in workplaces has previously been considered.

Historically, the focus in workplace has been on one sonic metric: loudness. There’s been a concerted effort to reduce noise levels, but this can cause more problems than it solves. Not all sound is bad. Soundscaping can create a powerful link between people and the natural world, fulfilling many basic human requirements for health, comfort and connection.

1. The human need for safety

People need to feel safe in order to be comfortable and engaged in the office. But many workplaces fall at this first hurdle.

Sound tells us whether a space is clean, nourishing and free from predators. For this reason, a babbling brook, leaves rustling in the breeze and gentle birdsong are tell-tale sounds of safety and refreshment. People instinctively relax when they hear these sounds.

Now think about the noises people typically encounter indoors: Machinery, notifications, construction... Humans are hard-wired to react negatively to these sudden, jarring sounds. Even if they consciously know they aren’t in immediate danger, these “mini-threats” subconsciously cause stress, distraction and trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response.

It may surprise you to learn of another stressful sound: silence. Think back to human evolutionary experiences in nature when the cessation of birdsong signaled an impending threat. In today’s workplaces, where you can often hear a pin drop, the absence of sound becomes its own kind of disturbance. Silence is unnerving. With lower occupancy levels, it’s a growing issue in workplaces.

Silence is very different from quiet. Quiet—taken here to mean the absence of human-generated noise—can restore; enable deep focus; give space to think, wonder and create. The forest might be quiet, but not silent. The bluffs near the ocean with the inhalations and exhalations of distant waves are quiet, but not silent.

People still respond positively to the sounds of nature, even when they’re introduced into the built environment. Introducing these “safe” natural sounds indoors through soundscaping can reduce physical symptoms of stress, reduce psychological anxiety and encourage positive emotions of safety and comfort.

2. The human need for social connection

Social connection is a double-edged sword when it comes to sound in workplaces.

Humans are inherently social beings and find speech almost impossible to ignore. Despite our need for social connection, overheard conversations are the most complained about sound in offices. When people are distracted by someone else’s chatter, they don’t have enough mental bandwidth left to focus on their own thoughts and work. This innate response to sound causes frustration and degrades productivity.

Workplace sound also affects the quantity and quality of social connections. Not only does silence unnerve people; it also hinders collaboration. People hold back on talking to one another to avoid disturbing their neighbors or being overheard.

Workplace designers are then faced with the unenviable task of creating environments with enough background sound that people feel comfortable collaborating, while also minimizing speech distractions for people who are trying focus.

Natural soundscaping can be an antidote to both problems. The sounds of water––like a flowing rive––can be engineered to mask speech very effectively. The addition of this soundscaping into a workplace reduces the intelligibility of overheard conversations, making them far less distracting. And in turn, these natural soundscapes ensure that spaces are never eerily silent and allow people to feel comfortable talking to one another.

Natural sounds can even bring a sense of life to empty offices. Researchers found that hearing birdsong in empty spaces creates a sense of social presence. They believe it’s because birdsong has many complex characteristics, just like human speech, and therefore signifies intelligent life and helps people feel less alone.

3. The human need for sense of place

People have an innate need to establish ownership over spaces. Evolutionary, this gave a sense of security. Thus, feeling “at home” and being connected to our surroundings is important for human health.

Someone’s relationship with a place can take many forms. The connection might be an emotional one, where people are familiar with their sensory surroundings and are emotionally invested in them. Or we could think about the relationship from a physiological perspective, where people’s bodily rhythms are in sync with the cadences of the natural world.

Circadian rhythms (our internal biological clocks) help us function normally and healthily, telling us, among other things, when it’s time to wake up and move or slow down and relax. Most people know that light can regulate these rhythms, but sound plays an important role too. Natural sounds that are characteristic of different times of day, like an early morning dawn chorus, can trigger our circadian rhythms. Natural soundscaping that changes over the course of a day can therefore create a physiological connection to place in the built environment, and pairs well with circadian lighting systems.

Consider too, how distinctive regional natural sounds can link a building to its geographic surroundings or amplify interior design concepts. Nature is more restorative when our senses are aligned.

4. The human need for choice and control

People need a sense of control over their environment. Researchers argue it’s essential for wellbeing, from both a psychological and a biological perspective. Historically, being able to make choices about the places we inhabited contributed to a healthy sense of personal autonomy and allowed us to adapt and solve problems.

Giving people control over their environment in workplaces increases satisfaction. Sound is no different—there is no “one-size-fits-all". Natural sounds are far less subjective than music and are beneficial for most people. But there’s no one sound or soundscape that will benefit everyone equally all the time. In the workplace, people perform different tasks, and they have different personalities, preferences and ways and working. And consider the diversity of sensory sensitivity: neurodivergent employees respond differently to noise compared to neurotypical people––typically they’re hypersensitive to disturbances.

Sometimes it’s possible to offer people direct control of the soundscape, for instance in smaller spaces, like meeting rooms or wellness rooms. In these spaces, people can use soundscaping technology to directly select the content that’s right for them.

In larger shared spaces, implement a process of sensory zoning. Essentially, a workplace shouldn’t sound the same across the building. There can be sonic options based on different work functions or to provide distinct levels of auditory stimulation. In one area the soundscape might be lively and dynamic, while in another it’s calming and quiet. It’s important to communicate with employees about the sensory options available to them. This approach of sensory zoning will help people understand their environment and choose areas that will best support them.

It's time to rethink workplace noise.

Clearly, the sound of offices should be characterised by far more than a decibel level. By learning from nature and harmonizing the soundscape to our biology, workplace designers can create environments that cater to people’s fundamental needs from a sensory perspective. Nature-inspired, science-backed sound can create offices that are healthier, more engaging, and better places to work.

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