Using Sound to Stay Productive, Healthy, and Happy in your Open Office

I detest open plan office spaces. The constant noise and distraction; the lack of personal privacy; rows and rows of anonymous desks that transform light and airy spaces into highly oppressive environments. I hate them!

As somewhat of an introverted person, I find this style of working environment immensely stifling and ultimately harmful to my productivity. But am I alone in feeling so adverse to open plan working? The noise and the constant interruption alone is surely enough to damage the productivity of even the most extrovert of office dwellers!?


Ironically, the open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamberg, Germany in the 1950’s to help further encourage creativity and innovation. Step forward into the present day, and the vast majority of workspaces are open. On paper, I’m sure these environments seem like good business sense, but for me, it’s a living nightmare. Fortunately, though, I’m not alone; a growing body of research appears to back my suspicion that while certain characters will cope better than others in open office spaces, their productivity will still ultimately suffer.

A short google search on “open office stress” will reveal a whole host of articles highlighting the original hypothesis behind open office plans, and the resulting impact on employees. One such article from The New Yorker highlights a plethora of research to this effect; including, but not limited to, the following:

1. A study conducted by Mobileum, Inc in conjunction with the University of Calgary, which monitored workers as they shifted from a traditional office to an open space. The study assessed employees’ satisfaction with the environment, their physical stress levels, coworker relations, perceived job performance, and more. Ultimately, employees suffered in all areas over the 6 month study period.

2. Studies by psychologist Nick Perham, who found that office noise can impair a workers’ ability to recall information and perform basic arithmetic.

In addition to the studies above, many other experts remain unconvinced by the proposed benefits of an open office. The author of Sound Business, Julian Treasure demonstrates with conviction how sound can have a substantial impact on our physiological, psychological, and cognitive well-being in his excellent TED Talk. According to treasure, we are “one-third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms.”

Needless to say, the open office has a lot to answer for. Far from increasing collaboration, and fostering creativity, the open working environment is alienating talented people and limiting their potential.

Unfortunately, however, these spaces aren’t going anywhere fast. Silicon Valley companies have lead the way under the guise of breeding “creativity and teamwork – plus breaking down silos.”

They’re also cheaper — allowing companies to maximise space while reducing cost. Not to mention the appeal to bosses, who love keeping a close eye on staff to ensure online shopping and social media browsing during work hours is kept to minimum.

So if like me you’re stuck in an open office for the foreseeable future, what can you do to help mitigate the damage? There are, of course, many dimensions to improving productivity, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll be focusing on sound.

It is the sound aspect in particular that fascinates me. I’ve often used music to escape the office environment, but also noticed how even music can have a detrimental effect on performance (as Nick Perhams study also suggests).

But which sounds work best?

Using Sound to Deal with the Open Office

Listen to White Noise:

I frequently listen to white noise when I need to shut out my immediate environment. It might seem counterintuitive at first, but by masking sudden or sporadic sound with consistent noise, we become less distracted or disturbed, which can positively impact some people’s concentration levels.

You have to get the balance just right, though; it’s possible to overdo it. According to a study published by the Oxford University Press, the optimum level of ambient noise is around (70 dB). At this level, ambient noise can enhance performance on creative tasks. A high degree of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity.

White noise comes in a variety of different forms, some more suited to different applications over others. Generally speaking, most find the pink noise variety to be the best tonal balance for open office concentration.

Use natural White Noises

As white noise is essentially created when many frequencies across the human hearing range are played back at similar strength, there are many natural sounds with similar tonal qualities. For example, the sound of running water is often likened to pink or brown noise. For many, these more natural alternatives are easier to listen to over longer periods of time. Try experimenting with soothing natural white noise, such as waterfalls, ocean tide, a crackling fire — that sort of thing.

Try Coffee shop ambient noise

The jury is still out of how effective ambient coffee shop noise is for increased productivity, but there’s no doubting its popularity. Modern entrepreneurs, in particular, rely on coffee shops as impromptu office and meeting spaces; so much so, they often overlook the security aspect, which can lead to a whole new kind of stress — but I digress….

If heading to the local coffee shop isn’t an option for you, try listening to pre-recorded coffee shop environments. Not all of them work; if you can pick out too many individual conversations, I find they can actually be worse than an open office, but if you get the balance just right, it can work wonders. As conversation layers build, the collective roar of chatter acts like a natural form of white noise, which can work for some.

Music has its place

According to a study from the University of Birmingham (UK), music is effective in raising productivity during repetitive tasks.

When it comes to the more creative and challenging aspects of our working day, however, it’s important to choose your tracks wisely. For me, ambient music without lyrics works best, as the words can often distract and break concentration. Cambridge Sound Management have some excellent research on this topic, with results showing how noise in general isn’t to blame when it comes to lost productivity — it’s how intelligible the words are that causes distraction.

Try Brian Eno’s music for airports — or even his similarly ambient Apollo — as an effective lyric free productivity tool.

Listen to birdsong

This one comes recommended by Julian Treasure (mentioned above). Treasure recommends at least 5 minutes of birdsong a day (there’s no maximum dose) as a prescription against the noise and stress of open office life.

Birdsong is particularly effective a reducing our stress levels because, over thousands of years, we’ve learnt that birdsong indicates a safe environment. Give it a try; your productivity will triple.

Choose the right headphones

It goes without saying that a good pair of headphones is crucial; if you use cheap headphones, you won’t be able to block out your environment adequately. Often, noise cancelling headphones are the go-to solution, but for me, these are a bone of contention. As a passionate music lover, I’m not a big fan of anything that could detrimentally affect the quality of my music. Noise cancelling circuitry is very efficient, but anything that works to cancel out certain sounds or frequencies can have an impact on the music or sound itself. I prefer sound isolating headphones as the natural alternative. These work by creating a tight seal between your ear and the outside world to avoid sound bleed both inward and out — without even touching the tone of your music or sounds.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately for most, open office spaces aren’t going anywhere soon. Most of us will work in one for at least some of our career, and until employers start fully embracing the technology around us to allow more home or non-office location working, the best course of action is to take control where you can. And take control we must; exposure to open-office noise for three hours or more increases levels of the fight-or-flight hormone, epinephrine – it’s stressing us out. As Kate Bush once claimed in the song Experiment IV: “They told us all they wanted was a sound that could kill someone.” So perhaps sound truly can be deadly, if only immensely slowly.