Less productive in a noisy office? Here’s why.

Sound can touch us profoundly – perhaps more acutely than any other sense. We only need to listen to a favourite piece of music or the voice of a loved family member to instantly tap a deep well of emotion. And equally, the cry of a distraught baby or even the yell of a stranger is hard to ignore. We feel sound, quite literally as well as metaphorically, in our bones.

All of this makes sense, because when you think about our prehistoric ancestors, sound was an essential signifier – of danger, safety and security. If you’re a caveman, after all, you don’t wait for further evidence once you’ve heard the roar of a sabre tooth tiger… you just run. And neuro-imaging studies show that sound stimulates the limbic area of the brain – the most primeval part – in a way that bypasses the logical, thinking self and cuts straight to the emotions, faster than any other sense.

But you don’t need to be a caveman – or the parent of a crying newborn – to be affected by sound. In many more subtle ways, sounds shape our behaviour every day. Not just in our private lives, but in the public spaces we share. Even in cyberspace. Clever designers know this – and put it to good use.

In fact, chances are that wherever you go, you’re being subtly influenced by your ears without even knowing it. Maybe even right now. Here’s how.

You’re more law-abiding in train stations that play classical music. 
Public transport hubs are often troubled by anti-social behaviour: vandalism, pick-pocketing, loitering and drug dealing. Policy-makers everywhere struggle to deal with this, spending up big on security staff and monitoring – but in many cases, they’d do better to ditch the CCTV for some Bach.

Numerous studies have shown that classical music deters criminal behaviour. In 2003, dozens of London subways stations began playing orchestral works over the sound system. Within 18 months, robberies had decreased by 33%, vandalism was down 37% and there were 33% fewer staff assaults. In Portland light rail stations, a similar experiment reduced the number of police calls by 40%. Closer to home, in both Brisbane and Melbourne, individual train stations have found that playing classical music reduces loitering and even graffiti.

But why? According to one researcher, it’s to do with the historical associations that such music carries. Put simply, rebellious teenagers find it uncool – and that drives them away, together with much of the criminal behaviour. Other theories suggest that the symmetry and order inherent in classical music acts as a calming influence on aggressive impulses. Either way, it seems to work.

You’re less productive in noisy offices.
Hate your open plan workspace? Work far more efficiently in a quiet café, or your kitchen table? You’re not alone – with over 70% of modern offices now adopting an open plan design, there are plenty of people around who aren’t pleased with the 9-5 status quo. And the science backs them up. Studies have shown that workers are up to 66% less productive when exposed to just a single conversation between colleagues.

Why? It’s about the way we think – our ‘inner dialogue’ – and the way that an external chat about your colleague’s great weekend or new haircut intrudes upon this internal conversation. We have ‘bandwidth’ for roughly 1.6 conversations at a time, explains Julian Treasure from consultancy firm The Sound Agency – leaving merely 0.6 for your own thoughts as you race to get that report written or spreadsheet filled.

You heal faster in quiet hospital wards.
‘Quiet hospital wards’ was once a contradiction in terms – but not anymore. While hospitals have traditionally been noisy environments, with constant beeps, whirrs and interruptions, recent innovations in healthcare design have improved patient recovery with careful environmental design that reduces noise.

And these changes can’t come too soon. With one hospital counting over 12,000 different beeps in a single day, ‘alarm fatigue’ is a major problem for staff as well as patients. One study showed that reducing unnecessary audio alarms reduced rates of medical error – plus made nurses’ jobs significantly easier, giving them the ability to respond to genuine needs quicker and more accurately.

At the same time, patients fare better too, with fewer beeps and buzzes leading to better quality sleep and lowered stress levels. The result, claim ward designers, is reduced healing time – and improved health for everyone involved.

And right now?
In fact, sound has probably influenced the very fact that you’re reading this article. Whether you’re using a computer, a smartphone or a tablet, every device has been designed with precise audio cues that make navigating through the virtual world more efficient – and, some might say, addictive.

It’s known as ‘sonic branding’, and it’s worth big money to tech companies like Apple or Samsung. Think the triumphant ‘dong!’ of the start-up sound, or the resonant ‘clack’ that happens when you open a window or tab.

You can test it out right now. Turn up your device’s volume and navigate around this page, taking note of the various sounds as you go. Never noticed them before? That’s exactly the idea – and that’s exactly why they’re so powerful.

For more information on the ways sound influences behaviour, contact your local clinic.

NHC blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.