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What are workplace soundscapes?

A modern workplace interior with wooden floors, pillars and lots of windows

The concept of “soundscaping” in commercial real estate is building momentum, particularly in offices. But what are workplace soundscapes? And how can they improve people’s experiences indoors?

Workplace noise

Most offices have a problem with noise. Noise has been a major complaint in workplaces for decades. It affects privacy, distraction and wellbeing. Working from home has only highlighted just how poorly offices function in this regard. Often, employees are able to focus better at home than in the building that’s actually  designed for them to work in.

Workplace soundscapes are a relatively new concept. Historical approaches to office sound have tended to focus on eliminating sound from offices. But this can cause more problems than it solves. Spaces can end up being unnaturally quiet and devoid of life. It’s become more of a problem post-Covid, where occupancy is much lower than before.

We know that excessive noise is bad for our health. But silence shouldn't be the sole objective for a healthy workplace. Silence accentuates distractions and research shows that silence isn't the optimal sound for productivity – even when there are zero distractions.

So, if silence isn't the answer, what is?

Workplace soundscapes

To improve people’s workplace experiences, we need to remember that sound isn't always the enemy. In fact, sound can be used as a positive design tool. That’s where workplace soundscapes come in.

“Workplace soundscapes” typically refer to specialist background audio content. These soundscapes aren’t normally designed to call attention to themselves. Instead, they subtly bring support to whichever activities are taking place in the space.

Done well, workplace soundscapes can be used to counter many of the major challenges faced in offices today.

Soundscape inspiration from nature

Your first question might be, what do these workplace soundscapes actually sound like? The answer comes from science.

Research shows that biophilic (nature-based) soundscapes are the most productive background sound for working. Remember, that’s even compared to uninterrupted silence.

It makes sense when you think about it. As humans evolved in nature, our brains learned to associate certain sounds with certain states. Some sounds put us on edge, like sudden unexpected noises, and others are frustratingly distracting, like overheard speech.

There’s a whole category of sounds, though, that can help us relax and focus: Certain natural sounds tell us that an environment is peaceful, safe and nourishing. Running water and gentle birdsong are just two examples. (A word of warning – do not subject people to repetitive YouTube nature sound mixes. Workplace soundscapes must be specially designed and people can spot loops, even when they’re a week long!)

Biophilic workplace soundscapes can help with all manner of things, including:

  • Creative thinking and collaboration
  • Focus and cognitive functioning
  • Reducing physical and mental stress
  • Mood – like feelings of comfort, safety and happiness
  • Connection to the outdoors – sound can cue our bodies’ circadian rhythms

Sensory soundscape zones

Not only can soundscapes improve people’s wellbeing and productivity, they can be used to create a range of sensory experience within a single workplace. By using workplace soundscapes, we can become interior sound designers and create some areas that are lively and dynamic, and others that are calm and comforting.

This is an important consideration because everyone has different sensory preferences. There's no one-size-fits-all. Extroverts, for instance, tend to thrive in livelier, louder spaces while introverts prefer calmer, quieter areas.

By consciously planning and introducing workplace soundscapes – rather than leaving things to chance – we can create measurably healthier and more productive experiences in offices.

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