Animation by Fanny Luor

Virtual First

Is your sonic environment killing your focus?

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Published on September 17, 2021

Animation by Fanny Luor

Sound affects everything from concentration to mental health, so why is it the last thing we consider in our workspaces?

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My partner and I used to work together in an office, so when the pandemic first had us locked inside, I wasn’t too worried about sharing a space at home. But the rules of etiquette went out the window in our tiny den-turned-workspace, especially when it came to sound. The repetitive clips of their video editing gave me an eye twitch. Even their kind offers of snacks or coffee always seemed to come right when I was in my workflow. 

Click click, type type, someone knocking at the door, the dog barking in turn, the fridge humming and stopping. I had no acoustic privacy! Normally I’d enjoy being interrupted with a funny meme or for a quick chat, but tiny constant noises I wasn’t used to slowly chipped away at my focus. It was harder and harder to complete tasks I used to whiz through at the office and now I knew why. 

Working from home made me more aware than ever about the importance of acoustics in the workplace. For me, sound has the ability to train or break my focus like no other sense. Those whose home offices overlook a construction site may be at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to concentration, but noises that occasionally burst through the quiet space, like a car alarm or my upstairs neighbor’s vacuum, can have just as much of an effect. 

It turns out that’s because the auditory cortex has different neural networks for silence and noise, so yo-yoing between two different types of interruptions doesn’t allow our brains to settle and relax. Even more worrisome, a study out of the University of California, Irvine found “it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.” But anything different from your habits is hard to get used to, especially if you’ve always worked in the white noise a larger office provides. 

Sound has always been a condition of work, albeit one that’s often been overlooked—even more so now that so many teams are distributed. Anyone working from home, or with remote teammates, has a new relationship with sound to contend with. Like a lot of relationships, listening and adapting is key to improvement.

Our brain on sounds

“Sound has a huge impact on us, partially because of our tendency to not consider it very thoroughly,” says audio educator and senior recording engineer James Clemens-Seely. As someone very attuned to the noises around him, Clemens-Seely has noticed those working from home becoming more aware of sound’s relationship to work—many for the first time. 

“Physiologically and psychologically, we’re good at tuning out steady state things,” he says. “What is often the case in shared workspace environments is that the background noise of people and machinery creates a steady wash. At home, it’s objectively more quiet but you notice the sound of the wind chimes or the creaking of your neighbor’s door.” 

It’s the lack of continuity of sound that can command the most attention and thus be a bigger distraction. Why is our focus being tested so much more at home? Well, the sound architecture of our domestic environments is designed for living, not concentrating.

“There’s less human noise, but that reveals a whole lot of system noise or environment noise,” says Clemens-Seely. “Before I started working from home, I didn’t care what kind of air handling system my house had. Now, all of the sudden I can’t stand our forced air coming on and off.”

The sound architecture of our domestic environments is designed for living, not concentrating.

Not that most offices have traditionally been designed to consider sound, either. “In corporate contexts it’s one of the last things that gets considered,” says Clemens-Seely. “They design this space with hard surfaces and high ceilings that look a certain way, then realize it’s all echo.”

All of these design elements can affect your ability to concentrate because ambient noise not only increases stress levels in the brain, but according to Scientific American, “continued exposure does not lead to habituation; in fact, the effects worsen.” That ongoing, worsening level of stress can decrease higher brain function, as well as impair learning and memory, meaning the deep work you need to do only gets harder when your sonic environment is out of whack. 

One key to remember, especially when sharing office or home space with others, is that not everyone shares the same reaction to different ambient noises. “What can be soothing for one person can be distracting for another,” says Clemens-Seely, whose wife enjoys the kind of soothing rain sounds he finds intrusive. 

Some sounds can certainly help to get you into a flow state, though. There are white noise machines, and whirring fans. Having something to concentrate on, like an ambient playlist, can help get you in the zone, and music has the added effect of masking some of the sonic pollution in your home space. One site that sprung up during Sweden’s lockdown, Sound of Colleagues, simulates keyboards, printers, coffee machines, ringing phones, even an office dog, resulting in the feeling of being in a shared space once more. 

Though most would never have previously described the sounds of colleagues humming or phones ringing off the hook as soothing, these types of office noise generators are popular and demonstrate a genuine desire for the sounds of other humans and their machines—it’s an almost nostalgic capsule of how we used to work, and that sounds nice sometimes. 

How noise equity affects your team

Back in the office, while noise was still a problem, sound equity was less of an issue because the space was both shared and familiar. There, digital communication tools’ cacophony of pings and alerts were probably the greatest sonic distractions. Now that distributed work has teams leaning into these tools, they’ve become a larger problem. 

“Just one of those noises seems inconsequential,” says Clemens-Seely, who refers to repetitive alert noises as sonic microaggressions, “but it’s like torture by a million water droplets.” And these aggressions move from micro to macro for anyone who suffers from selective sensitivity to sounds common in those on the autism spectrum, and those with ADHD or anxiety.

A lot of other individual factors have contributed to the sonic inequality of remote and hybrid work. Some people have kids; Some have multiple household video chats going on at once; Others live by the freeway. It’s also long been true that noise pollution is more likely to affect certain groups more than others. A study out of UC Berkeley found a strong correlation between noise and race, determining that “neighborhoods with at least 75 percent Black residents had median night-time noise levels 4 decibels higher than in neighborhoods without any Black residents.” 

Working from home opens you up to all the systemic issues baked into the foundation of where you live, as opposed to the office’s more equal playing field—a reminder of the blurred lines between life and work at the home office. No single employer can address and fix all these issues, it’s true. But targeted changes can demonstrate an understanding of the impact that sound has on work lives. Policies like designated quiet times where people can assume they won’t be contacted at all can make a world of difference, because it’s not just about noise—it’s about sound equating to availability. 

“The notion of constant availability in any given context is a little bit poisonous,” says Clemens-Seely. “Always sending messages, that’s going to cause stress. Same with if you’re always supposed to be listening for the possibility of being summoned.” 

Sound editing your workspace

Office noise—at home or shared—will always be there; It’s how we react to it that can make all the difference. While sight is intellectually processed, sound is processed more emotionally. “Something subtly stressful in your sound environment will have a serious impact on your mood and feeling of the day,” says Clemens-Seely. “I think since we’re not good at processing it intellectually it’s hard to manage that stress, or even realize why you’re agitated.”

It’s not just about noise—it’s about sound equating to availability. 

One way to take charge of your sonic environment is to determine which sonic hue works for you. You’ve surely heard of white noise—that’s equal, steady distribution across all audible frequencies. This shows up in sounds like a whirring fan, or television static, which can be enough to mask loud, bothersome sounds. 

White noise seems to be a catchall for background noise in general, but pink noise, which is unequally distributed sound that focuses intensity on lower frequencies, might be what you’re looking for. Pink noise, named for the pink appearance of light in this power spectrum, shows up a lot in natural sounds like rustling leaves, heartbeats, or heavy rain. There’s also the deeper brown noise, if you like sounds like rolling thunder or waterfalls. All of these types of noises stimulate the brain and distract from the sonic microaggressions that can take you out of focus. 

If you want to make physical changes to your space to help with noise, adding soft items like pillows, or working in a room with a couch actually makes a big difference to deadening the sound. Using noise cancelling headphones without listening through them is also good in small doses, says Clemens-Seely. “Give yourself at least a silent half hour a day to help reduce your sound stress,” he says. 

The stress I experienced while sharing my acoustic space 24/7 felt difficult to overcome until I got noise-cancelling headphones myself. 

I’d never owned a pair before and I was in awe. Suddenly, I was in a sonic environment of my own making. I could control what filtered between my ears and what was blocked out. As Clemens-Seely suggested, sometimes I just use them as extremely effective earplugs instead of listening devices. The headphones also serve as a visual cue that signifies that I’m wired in, mid-task, and requiring focus. Now if I don’t respond to the door or to my partner asking questions, it’s because I need to concentrate at that moment, and literally not being able to hear is a great excuse. It’s a workaround, but it works for me. 

Because sound isn’t something we think about enough in relation to work, or really at all, creating a more comfortable, productive environment for yourself requires practice. “It’s just about training your attention,” says Clemens-Seely. “We’re used to passively experiencing the sound world instead of actively analyzing it.” 

Choosing to pay attention to your space is the first step in figuring out what you like and don’t like about how it sounds. “Sit in your workspace and write down a list of 10 things you can hear,” says Clemens-Seely. Just that simple act of active listening will attune you better to your space, and make it easier for you to make adjustments that could change how you work.  

While there are always tech solutions—the noise machines, the headphones—the reason the sonic world can give us so many problems is because most of us barely pay it any mind until it’s irksome, or until we notice what we’re missing. But sound also gives us music, it gives us soothing thunderstorms, it gives us the sweet, deadening hum of the void that tickles our brains and allows us to keep typing just a little bit longer. Paying attention to sound is integral to the future of the workspace. 

Curate your sonic environment to suit your needs and you’ll create a whole world between your ears that can either help you drill down and focus, or escape into your own thoughts. 

“Listening doesn’t affect your ability to look at or handle things,” says Clemens-Seely. “It’s almost like being able to exist in multiple realities.”