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The role of soundscaping in return to office

A modern, bright workplace with soundscape sound waves floating in the background

This article was originally published in Installation International magazine. Click here to view the original piece.

Covid showed both the promise and the pitfalls of remote working. What have we learned? And how can soundscaping help companies motivate their people to come back to the office?

I have some very good news and a bit of bad news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

We’ve all recently experienced a hype cycle. The Covid pandemic swept the world, sending us home to work from our bedrooms, spare rooms and kitchen tables. Although the experience of working from home was uneven, a consensus formed: working from home worked. Indeed, for many tasks, including cognitively demanding, focussed effort, the home appeared to work better. In the words of Tim Oldman, CEO of Leesman, whose survey captured over 280,000 responses from employees around the globe: “It doesn’t say much of the average office when a space designed for living can support an employee better than spaces designed specifically for working.” With offices closed and businesses still functioning, pundits and social media feeds thus reached the peak of the hype cycle: “The office is dead!”

Unfortunately, they’d failed to read the rest of Leesman’s study, which showed the inability of homes to support social, creative, and collaborative activities, as well as the degree to which on-the-job learning has suffered. The long-term consequences of all of this for innovation and corporate culture are uncertain, but clearly negative. It became clear that post-pandemic work would involve a hybrid of home and office time. With offices newly opened and restrictions lifted in much of the world, we thus arrived at the trough of the hype cycle: “Return to the office!”

But the return to the office has been unevenly successful, partially due to the persistence of the pandemic, but increasingly because employees have preferred to stay at home. Safety concerns, commutes, and the benefits of working from home have meant that for many, the return to the office hasn’t been a compelling proposition.

Now for the good news! Leesman’s work showed that employees who’d been privileged enough to work in exceptional offices prior to the Covid pandemic have been keen to come back as soon as safely possible. And many companies took advantage of the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent the office to better support social and collaborative activities and to facilitate connection.

Oldman now sees the growing trend of ‘hotelification’ of workplaces, as organisations seek to provide employees with offices that they want to visit: “Employees will treat offices differently because they are using them nomadically, booking in for a conscious stay,” he says. “Offices therefore need to be beacons of warmth and hospitality to motivate people to visit them.”

For companies willing to make the effort to rethink their historical approach to office design, this is a tremendous opportunity to create better offices than ever before.

Nuisance noise

For decades, noise has been the top complaint about offices. The best studies by UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, Leesman, Gensler and others have all shown this.

It’s nothing new that people hate the sound of the office. What is new is Covid-informed experiences of employees around the world, who found that “almost any activity benefitting from acoustic privacy is better supported at home than in any average office.” Thankfully, sound, specifically soundscaping, represents a powerful tool to companies keen to get their people back into the office.

Soundscaping refers to the introduction of targeted sound designed to optimise the sonic experience of an environment. Indoor soundscaping can be comprised of music, artificially generated noise, or other elements, but in offices the best rule for designing for large groups of people is to take a cue from nature. Biophilic design is concerned with our evolutionary biology, and specifically our innately positive psychological, physiological and behavioural responses to natural stimuli. Whereas music is powerfully subjective, biophilic soundscapes can be created so as to work well for large groups of people sharing indoor spaces.

Science-based soundscapes can contribute significantly to many aspects of employee wellbeing and performance as well as collaborative and social activities. Combining soundscaping with multisensory design can create offices that outperform options available to people at home.

Return-to-office strategies will need to go beyond enticing people in with amenities. Offices will have to be increasingly healthy and comfortable places, with biophilic design playing an increasingly important role in creating restorative and engaging sensory experiences for employees. Soundscaping can help, improving social cohesion, social presence and organisational culture—up-to-now lacking in many workplaces. And the research shows that soundscaping can support physical and mental health, relaxation, focus and cognitive functioning, and creativity.

For those seeking to meet Oldman’s challenge and create offices that are “beacons of hospitality,” capable of motivating employees to return, soundscaping can help these buildings become more than just places to work.

Soundscaping is best implemented zonally, with distinct sensory zones supporting the many sensory needs of neurodiverse people. Sensory design that also introduces elements of choice can be a real winner – where employees are empowered to choose where and how they work and easily configure the environment as they want. In this way, soundscaping can help offices rise to Oldman’s challenge, creating mixed-use lifestyle spaces, rather than just places to work.

Now how does that sound?

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