Is Soundscaping the Cure to Open Office Noise?

Could the sound of a waterfall or an egg-shaped chair solve your open office woes?

The open office isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, especially when it comes to noise. Yet new research and products are popping up to help minimize that noise that can be so distracting, and can ultimately harm productivity.

Take, for instance, the egg chair. Researchers at the University of Sydney created a special chair meant to protect a person from bothersome noise and to project the speaker’s voice toward the front or whomever they’re addressing. The Australian team also devised wood “retroreflective ceilings” that cast back sound back to the speaker, making the volume louder to him or herself. The upshot? They talk a little quieter.

Companies such as Knotel, Google and Nike are employing sound-proof telephone booths that dampen noise and provide an easy solution to private conversations and phone calls.

Or, you can fight noise with …. more noise. Santa Cruz-based acoustic company Plantronics has tested a variety of strategies to increase productivity in open-office environments and even experimented with white noise machines. Turns out the white noise only caused headaches and pushed employees to find more peaceful places to work. So the company’s researchers turned to the sound of water. To be precise, the sound of a babbling brook, versus rushing water or trickling water.

The strategy worked, transforming surrounding conversations into unintrusive babble noise rather than intelligible speech. Better yet — the water sounds became comfortable and rejuvenating.

Plantronics landed on a new concept: soundscaping. The approach uses special wall panels, ceiling structures and thick carpet to dampen noise. Ceiling structures, for example, diminish echoes. Plush carpets absorb sound. Meanwhile, soundscaping employs gentle nature sounds like tinkling brooks and gentle breezes wafting through forests, to promote serenity and mute distractions.

Also key to that soundscaping? Visual connections to the sounds, such as a self-contained indoor waterfall inside the office. Otherwise, people hear the sound of water but without a visual clue, it creates confusion. A leaky pipe?

Plantronics also installed sensors and microphones in the ceilings that detect increasing conversation levels in key zones. Only areas with more noise will automatically receive subtle increases in the nature sounds. The data flows continuously, and the soundscaping algorithms are constantly learning.

Now, if only software could teach people how to talk softly.