Running Your Business

Can the Effects of White Noise Improve Open Office Productivity?

  • Open offices have brought more noise into the workspace, which can have negative effects on employees

  • White noise may increase productivity and promote a sense of calm

  • Not all workers respond well to white noise, so other solutions should be considered

Posted by January 16, 2020

Open office plans are popular, but what about all that noise? To counter the spread of distracting office chatter, the effects of white noise are being weighed as a possible solution by human resource managers and office designers. Though the results haven’t been consistent, introducing white noise into the work environment may provide some benefits.

White Noise and Productivity

Some people feel more focused and productive when using white noise machines or apps. And considering that employees report losing up to 86 minutes a day to noise distractions alone, it’s worth looking into the perks of white noise.

First, it’s important to know the difference between noise types. Though all indistinct background noise can be called ambient noise, the sound needs to have a certain characteristic for it to be considered white noise. There are also pink and brown noises—each having a different effect on the listener.

For office use, white noise is sought out most often, and it has had some scientific support. In studying children with ADHD, researchers found a link between improved memory and concentration with listening to white noise through headphones. Note that this is much different than the application of a white noise machine in an office, however, and these results haven’t been replicated in a typical 9-to-5 workplace.

Some studies are exploring how nature sounds may be an even better tool. The sound of a running creek or birds chirping may have a more overall relaxing effect on listeners, which may allow them to better focus on the task at hand. More studies will need to be done on sound in the office to know which types, if any, have a big enough effect on productivity and learning to make them widely acceptable.

Overall Employee Contentment and Health

Of all the things that office workers complain about, noise is high on the list. More than clutter or uncomfortable chairs, noise irks between 25% to 30% of workers. Higher on the list, however, was noise privacy; worry that a coworker could hear a phone call or private meeting concerns around 40% to 60% of office employees.

With noise being a source of bother and frustration, it’s a possibility that white noise could either be an effective tool for calming a workforce or the element that pushes everyone over the edge. Science shows that this preference varies from person to person: White noise can be an effective tool for some to regain focus but a major stressor and source of distraction for others.

In fact, white noise has been shown to increase cortisol—the stress hormone. It can also cause other bodily systems to react negatively. In an article for Scientific American, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that ambient noise may derail health if it causes an already symptomatic person additional stress. Conditions such as high blood pressure or migraines can be aggravated if the person hearing the ambient noise finds it to be unsettling.

To Each Their Own?

The short answer to, “Can white noise help in the office?” Well, it depends. What one person may find deeply calming or gratifying may drive another person mad. That’s why real-life testing is advised when making any changes to the office environment.

Take any new practice slow at first. See how your team does and adapt as needed. You may find that white noise does more good than harm, but investing large amounts of money into a somewhat unproven solution might be impractical. Not to mention, it might stress out some of your staff.

More widely-accepted methods like incorporating sound-absorbing materials into your design or designating both loud and quiet spaces may work better for everyone. At the end of the day, employee satisfaction is key. Poll your office or meet with employees one on one, then determine whether or not the effects of white noise are a practical solution for your business.

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