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Is a noisy office ever a good thing?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Businesswoman putting finger in ears.
Studies suggest that little bit of background noise might be most beneficial for productivity. Photo: Getty

Until this year, many of us relished the idea of working from home. The concept of doing away with commuting, office politics and the smell of your colleague’s reheated lunch was a dream come true.

But as the weeks and months roll by, the reality of remote working can set in. Although you can work in the comfort of your own home, it can get pretty lonely without colleagues and the bustle of a busy workplace.

However, a growing number of people are turning to “fake office noise” websites to recreate the sounds usually heard by desk workers. Thousands of people are using sites like I Miss the Office so they can listen to the sound of printers, coffee machines and the hum of background conversations in lounges and kitchens.

For some people, office noise is a welcome break from the monotony of working in silence. For others, background sounds are nothing more than a distraction to be blocked out with noise-cancelling headphones.

So is background noise ever a good thing — and why do some of us hate it?

Why background noise isn’t all bad

Listening to sounds normally heard in a workplace — the tapping of shoes walking across a floor and rustling papers — reminds us that we’re in work mode, even when in our own homes. With lots of people unaccustomed to working from their lounges or kitchens in silence, subtle background sounds can help improve productivity.

READ MORE: What are 'interpersonal skills' and why do employers look out for them?

Adding gentle white noise that you don’t pay attention to is an easy way to create ideal workplace acoustics. There are even a number of Spotify playlists designed to keep us focused.

Research has also shown that listening to music can be beneficial too. Half of Brits listen to music while at work, according to a survey of 2,000 employed people by Scala Radio. More than a third of those polled said they worked harder and two in five get more done when listening to music. Almost half (47%) said they feel less stressed and more than a third said their productivity improved with background melodies.

A separate study of more than 4,500 people by TotalJobs found 79% can boost their productivity by listening to music. According to music psychologist Dr Anneli Haake, who was involved in the research, this is partly because music can be a mental stimulant and when people become stimulated by the work they are doing, their performance can increase. Some companies even broadcast music around entire offices in an attempt to improve their employees’ productivity.

READ MORE: Why rude colleagues affect more than just your job

Studies suggest that little bit of background noise — rather than pure silence — might be most beneficial for productivity. To find out more, Ravi Mehta, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asked four groups of volunteers to engage in a creative thinking test while exposed to different decibels of noise.

These noise levels included complete silence, 50 decibels, 70 decibels and 85 decibels. The results showed that participants exposed to 70 decibels of background noise performed significantly better than their counterparts.

Why some people hate background noise

That being said, research has shown that high noise levels can cost companies in employee focus and productivity, with one UK study suggesting that three in 10 employees regularly lose their concentration due to the chatter and hum of office life.

There are various factors that determine whether office noise is a nuisance or not. Firstly, it depends on the type of noise. Low-cognitive sounds such as gentle music, muffled conversations and typing can be less distracting than a co-worker’s loud phone conversation about their weekend plans. The more engaging music is — such as music with lyrics — the worse it is for our concentration.

Secondly, whether we are bothered by background noise depends on the type of work we are doing. Although music can help boost us through boring or monotonous tasks, research shows that people work better in silence when carrying out more cognitively complex tests.

READ MORE: Why offices will still exist in the post-lockdown working world

Our personalities also play a part in our sound preferences too, specifically, whether we are introverted or extroverted. In 2011, researchers from University College London and the University of London asked 118 female secondary school students to complete a questionnaire, which revealed how extroverted or introverted each was.

Then the students were subjected to various cognitive challenges, some while listening to UK garage music or the sounds of a classroom. A control group completed the tasks in silence. The results showed that all of the students performed better in silence. But in general, the more extroverted they were, the less affected they were by noise.

Misophonia, a disorder in which everyday sounds can trigger anxiety, panic, stress or anger, can also cause problems for some workers. For people with the condition, common noises such as breathing, yawning, or chewing create a fight-or-flight response.

So to keep everyone happy in the office, headphones might be a good idea.