⇠ Back to News

Three ways that sound and technology can improve workplace experiences

A modern workplace meeting room with natural sound waves floating through the space

Thanks to Facilities Management Middle East for featuring this article. To experience soundscaping in the UAE, book a visit to our Dubai showroom.

For many decades, the main complaint in shared buildings has been noise. Noise distracts people, creates stress and frustration, causes ill-health, and deters people from using spaces. None of this is good. But today I’d like to reframe how you think about sound in buildings, transcending the noise complaints to discover the positive powers of sound.

In my experience, sound isn’t typically viewed as a particularly positive aspect of buildings and facilities. Often, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, such as faulty air conditioning or complaints about a loud co-worker. When it comes to designing buildings, visual design typically comes first. It might be followed by some acoustic treatments—absorb here. Block there. But even that isn’t always the case, and when it is, that’s about as far as most building designs go in designing sound.

The truth is that the sound around us massively impacts our everyday experiences. The sounds we encounter in buildings affect us bodily, from heart rate and respiration to hormone production. Sounds affect our brains, impacting our cognitive functioning. And sounds impact various aspects of behavior, health and well-being. These responses have all been validated by hundreds of published research papers. It makes sense: Our ears are important tools for survival. They tell us about things that we can’t see, and our brains are always working to interpret the sounds around us.

The spaces we inhabit are not silent—they are filled with noise from people and machinery, creating a soundscape experienced by everyone within them. By acknowledging this, we recognize that while certain sounds can adversely affect us, there is also immense potential to harness sound for beneficial outcomes.

Through exploring three strategic approaches to enhance the soundscapes of buildings, particularly workplaces (though these concepts are applicable to various shared spaces), I aim to demonstrate how sound management can significantly improve our productivity, comfort and health, as well as the duration of time we spend in spaces. And if you take away just one thing from this article, it should be the transformative power of sound in making positive changes in our built environment.

Create sensory variety

There are some universal reactions to sound. For example, our brains interpret loud sudden noises as threats, causing cortisol to be released into the bloodstream as we prepare for fight-or-flight. Typically, slower rhythms calm our bodies, while faster rhythms will do the opposite.

We can predict typical responses like these, but it becomes more complex when trying to design for shared spaces, particularly where people are trying to work. There’s no one-size-fits-all sound that will please everyone, particularly in an office, where people will perform different types of tasks. And personal preferences vary depending on things like personality type, sensory sensitivity, and neurodiversities like autism and ADHD. For instance, some people thrive in busy, stimulating spaces. Others prefer quiet, calm and predictability.

One starting principle is to create sensory variety throughout a building. Walk around your buildings, listening to the spaces and their sonic characteristics. There ought to be livelier areas, spaces for quiet focus, and opportunities for restoration. People ought to have the freedom to choose between these options.

How can you introduce sonic variety if there is none? First, ensure you don’t have a noise problem, as excessive air conditioning or mechanical noise levels limit your options. As long as that’s not an issue, you can then consider “soundscaping.” Soundscaping is the act of bringing designed sound into a building. It works as a background device, like sonic wallpaper, to support people in different activities. If your workplace lacks animated areas, introduce livelier soundscaping for sensory variety.

Introduce the sounds of nature for well-being

I’ve mentioned that some sounds have measurably positive effects on people. Many of these positive sounds come from the natural world. The sounds of nature can tell us that a place is safe and nourishing. When we hear these sounds, our brains and bodies relax. Most people do their best work listening to the sounds of nature––even compared to silence. The amazing thing is, we don’t have to be outdoors to get these benefits. Bringing the sounds of nature indoors can measurably improve our ability to focus, relax us, and help us come up with novel ideas.

There are a couple of caveats to mention here: The first is, don’t just play nature sounds in a building. As you can imagine, looping birdsong into an office won’t help anyone. Use specialist soundscaping technology designed specifically for this purpose. This technology introduces sounds generatively, composed in real-time to avoid loops. Secondly, think back to our exercise in sensory variety. We don’t want the same soundscaping across the whole building––perhaps there’s a lively jungle soundscape in the collaboration areas, but then a gentle river in the focus space. Another benefit of purpose-built nature soundscapes is that they can be crafted to mask distractions, using precise sound pressure levels and frequency content designed to make distracting speech less intelligible. And it’s critical that the soundscaping adapts to changing ambient sound levels. Distant ocean waves can be perceived as pleasant and inviting when the office as busy, but they can easily be overpowering during a quiet moment. A responsive soundscaping system will pick up on these changes and always generate an appropriate soundscape.

Get insights from sound

If technology is a focus in your facilities, you likely have a number of sensors reporting on aspects of your buildings, such as occupancy, air quality, or temperature.

Sonic insights add an important layer to this information. Taken alone, they can tell us things like where it’s liveliest, noisiest or most distracting. Used in combination with other data, they give an important layer of insight. Take an occupancy sensor, for example. It may tell us how many people there are in the space, but the sonic insights will tell us how those people are working, whether sitting in silence or buzzing with activity. These sonic insights can help us better understand how our spaces function and how they’re being used.

By skillfully integrating soundscaping technology into our work environments, we not only address noise as a nuisance but transform it into a dynamic tool that enhances well-being, fosters productivity, and reshapes our interaction with space.

Sign up for our newsletter

Keep up to date with our work, training and research.