How office sound affects your productivity


If you follow my blog chances are you are working in retail, marketing or communications. Basically an office job. Am I right?

There is also a pretty decent chance that you are working in an open plan office. These large open work spaces have replaced the old cubicles in rapid pace over the past few decades. Why? They are said to promote interaction and team work among co workers. They also allow for social control, making it impossible for employees to secretly zone out or do personal stuff during work hours.

But there is a dark side. An open space with multiple people in it is bound to be noisier than a private office. All those people are typing, breathing, talking, making phone calls, going to the bathroom, getting coffee and so on. Add to that the printers that are often placed in the same space and the cooling fans of multiple computers and you have got yourself a messy cocktail of sound.

Still, most managers prefer to have their employees situated in such a space. Until you tell them how all this noise affects the productivity of the work force! Have a little guess. How much do you think your productivity suffers from office noise? Banbury & Berry (1998) found that the drop in productivity by noise alone is as high as 66%!!!

Think about that. In a noisy office you are only one third as productive as you would be in a quiet space!

Another issue that arises is stress. Many scientific studies (among which my own) have proven that people experience significantly higher stress levels in noisy office spaces. Particularly sounds they cannot control, such as a co-worker operating a printer,  cause stress and irritation. Constant high stress levels ultimately lead to health issues and a rise in sickness absence. Another costly issue for any enterprise.

It is important when deciding on an office plan what kind of work is to be performed in it. Creative and production work might benefit from open plan offices since the value of open communication is high enough to cover the loss in productivity. However, if concentration is required separate offices are highly preferable.

The same goes for adding music. When performing manual labor or repetitive tasks music is proven to help morale and productivity. When focus is required to perform mentally challenging tasks (such as reading or writing) music usually works against you. The same goes for studying. Individuals might benefit from music, but overall there is reason to consider any additional sound unwanted.

Researchers found that incidental sound is to be avoided where possible in work spaces. Incidental sound is any sound that appears unexpectedly, as opposed to for instance the constant drone of an air conditioning. Good examples are a telephone ringing or a colleague talking. It was found that when such a sound disturbs us, it takes a full twenty minutes to get back to our full concentration level. So it only takes three little sounds every hour to keep you from ever reaching your full potential!

When moving into a new office here are a few simple tips that will dramatically increase productivity:

Match office spaces to type of work. Work that requires concentration requires the silence and privacy of a personal work space. Work that requires communication could benefit from an open space.

Give people authority over their own soundscape. Make sure the surrounding space is quiet but let employees play their own music if they prefer. Being able to control your own sonic environment reduces stress and increases productivity. Do not let one employee operate a radio for everyone. Rather, let everyone choose to play music via their headphones or not. Try not to become too antisocial by blocking out all your colleagues 8 hours a day.

Match your personal music to your work. Production work? Music can help keep your pace up. Creative work? Subtle background music could inspire. Work that puts a heavy strain on the brain? Silence is probably best.

So maybe it is time to ask your manager for a nice, quiet new office?

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

Leave a reply


  1. Thomas van Straaten 25 januari, 2014 at 13:27 Beantwoorden

    Thank you for your compliment!
    Yes, in fact Julian Treasure has been a major inspiration to get into this business. Very insightful man. I can recommend reading his book “Sound business” if you’re interested in this field.

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