News & Opinion | June 6, 2022 12:31 pm

A Big Reason You Don’t Want to Go Back to the Office? Sound.

Your workplace is filled with unwanted noise, which causes mental and physical stress. This company wants to change your soundtrack.

Stock photo of a man with headphones working in an office. The sound of your office can have negative or positive effects.
The day-to-day sounds in your office could contribute to your stress.
Solskin / Getty

Can the actual sound of an office entice you to return to work?

According to Alex Coutts, the senior vice president and head of experience at Made Music Studio, the right use of sound can markedly improve an employee’s workplace environment. His company has previously noted that unpleasant noise has been linked with mental and physical stress (anxiety, heightened blood pressure, etc.) and that a lack of control over one’s sonic environment can create dissatisfaction with the workplace.

“Before the pandemic, two-thirds of U.S. office workers were in open office environments filled with bad acoustics and distracting noises from loud group meetings, phone and video calls, watercooler chatter, and the clicking of keyboards,” Coutts writes in MIT Sloan Management Review. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Instead, he proposes that companies focus on a sound environment that fosters better privacy for workers, masks bad noise and enhances mood, focus and productivity. Among the suggestions:

  • Ditch or enhance the open-floor design with private areas designed for focused work. And that room’s soundtrack could offer increased silence, white noise or even ambient music.
  • To increase collaboration, create “smart” soundscapes — which here are defined as dynamic soundscapes that adapt in real-time to the hour of the day, decibel level or occupancy level.
  • Because our brains process sound more quickly than other senses, the office should be designed to create a good first impression, or “cultivating calm in the short term and building a deeper sense of belonging in the long term.” This could be done via (again) ambient soundscapes that welcome people to a space.

Obviously, Made Music has a business incentive to suggest soundtracking or redesigning your office for sound enhancement — they’ve worked with companies like American Express to achieve some of the goals listed above. But given that some companies want more workers back in the office while the employees aren’t necessarily thrilled with returning, creating a better workspace environment for all the senses seems like a solid idea — especially if you leave it to professionals, and not the guy in the office who has a “really cool indie playlist.” (Otherwise, may we suggest some good noise-canceling headphones?)