Hearing – Part 2: Five Senses and the Work Environment

Let us continue the discussion on hearing and the work environment by focusing on soundscape and sound control.

Nature of Sound- Soundscape

Let us start with the positive aspects of the sounds we hear. What we hear can contribute to our well being and productivity. Sounds from nature (running water, softly chirping birds, breezes) have positive effects on us, just as nature scenes or images do.

The positive aspects of sound remind us that there is more than just noise elimination when creating a comfortable environment at work. There are sounds/music that are conducive to certain types of work activity. What are the ideal sound levels or types of sound for different tasks?  For concentrated work tasks, the rustling of the wind, mellow or classical music might be better. For activities driven by energetic interactions, upbeat music might be more beneficial even if played at very low volume. 

Just as we design the landscape of a garden, we should also consider designing soundscapes for workplaces. The practice of designing soundscapes and scientifically studying their benefits is very limited as of now. But we believe it is still worth trying to create experiential soundscapes (sounds heard and experienced by a worker as he/she is moving around and working in the office). Just as the images in Ozu’s film are a series of first-person perspectives, human-centric, the soundscape should also be a series of linear experiences of different workers, rather than just sounds distributed like objects in the space.

Soundscape is also important for your work environment.

Nature of Sound -Sound Control

Sound is also pervasive/inescapable and therefore difficult to control. But there are aspects that must be controlled.  There are three traditional approaches that are used in combination to create desirable soundscapes in workspaces.

Sound blocking places walls that block and isolate noise. The recommended minimum Sound Transmission Coefficient (STC- rating of sound isolation of a wall assembly) is 53 (higher is better) to isolate sounds in video conference rooms.1United States General Services Administration. Sound matters: How to achieve acoustic comfort in the contemporary office. December 2011. For typical office interior walls, the rating is 38–40.2S. Chiu, D. Noble, E. Valmont, 9 – Acoustics in architectural fabric structures: The case of ETFE pillows, Editor(s): Josep Ignasi de Llorens, In Woodhead Publishing Series in Textiles, Fabric Structures in Architecture, Woodhead Publishing, 2015, pp. 241-256 In addition to what the walls are made of which is specified in the STC ratings, how they are installed is also very important as sound, like water, goes everywhere.

Another way to control sound is to Sound Absorption.  Softer and porous materials absorb direct noise and reduce reverberation time.3United States General Services Administration. Sound matters: How to achieve acoustic comfort in the contemporary office. December 2011 Acoustic ceiling tiles, so common in office spaces, are there for this purpose. Carpeting is effective in absorbing annoying footfalls. Some furniture finishes and curtains are designed to soak up sound. Hard surfaces, such as ceramic tiles, stones, and concrete have the opposite effects. In the case of the noise from the forced air in Yoko’s office mentioned in a previous article, it could have been reduced if the floor was carpeted (it is hardwood) or the wall was covered by fabric (it is painted).

Sound Masking is the process of adding low level background sound. Why would we want to add more sound when the aim is acoustic comfort which is often seen as quietness? When a space is too quiet, any small noise could create distraction for its contrast. Also, especially in open-office environments, intelligible speech by others is often noted as a leading cause of distraction.4Kim J, de Dear R. Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal ofEnvironmental Psychology. 2013; 36:18-26. 5Sundstrom E, Town JP, Rice RW, Osborn DP, Brill M. Office noise, satisfaction, and performance. Environment andBehavior. 1994;26(2):195-222. This could be mediated by installing a masking system that uses sound with a spectrum similar to that of human speech.6Veitch J, Bradley J, Legault L, Norcross S, Svec J. Masking speech in open-plan offices with simulation ventilation noise: Noise-level and spectral composition effects on acoustic satisfaction. 2002. In turn, it offers speech privacy to those who are speaking.

Sound masking can be done in various ways, with water fountains or breeze through trees, which we will discuss in upcoming articles. 

Using Current Technology to Manage Sound

The audio environment in the digital world (such as the one we experience while in Zoom meeting) is also a part of our work environment, and is connected to our soundscape in the real world (i.e. children playing noisily in your colleagues home office).

Video conferencing tools have built in features that we can configure in order to enhance audio quality and eliminate unwanted sounds by simply clicking a selection of checkboxes to automatically:

  • Adjust microphone and speaker input/output levels
  • Suppress background noises of different types and levels such as dog barking, typing, and the computer fan
  • Maintain high fidelity music modes
  • Cancel echoing

Newer headset technology provides clearer sound and voice amplification while cancelling out ambient noises which is the plague of any office (also home) environment.

The above is still in the realm of the traditional approaches previously mentioned.  Blocking and absorbing to compartmentalize sounds. Masking only covers disharmonious sounds with more pleasant ones. Technology can help us decrease or camouflage the sounds we have to cope with but what about creating a sound environment that truly benefits the individual?

Just as we design the landscape of a garden, we should also consider designing soundscapes for workplaces.

Y. Kawai & Y. Burton

Creating Ideal Soundscapes

There are tools available that can augment our perception levels when it comes to our surroundings. Ones that offer ways to have a deeper connection and interaction with our environment through our auditory senses.

Think of how sound is used in movies. Ominous music to build tension or signal horror approaching. A melancholy tune to illustrate the sad news being delivered. Lighthearted music for a happy ending. Sound is used as a precursor to foreshadow what is coming up or to underline the mood in the scene.

What about an office? Can soundscapes be created to reflect and respond to the individual as he/she works or moves around in the office?  Through the understanding of the different spaces in an office, the tasks to be performed in each space, and the noise needs of workers, businesses can create soundscapes that promote the type of activity or impart information about an area.  Lively sounds to stimulate creativity and collaboration, soothing sounds to promote break time or at the frenzied final moments before a project launch. Soundscapes offering auditory clues for navigation for visually impaired individuals or uplifting and motivational sounds when a project is completed. 

Applications such as Brain.fm uses technology to elicit neural phase locking (tendency of a neuron to fire action potentials at particular phases of an ongoing periodic sound waveform). This allows neurons to engage in various kinds of coordinated activity. This type of soundscaping is designed to steer users into a desired mental state.

There are various ways to control the sounds that impact us in our work environment. From common methods such as blocking, absorption, and masking to more integrated ones of designing a soundscape to create personalized spaces suited to where and how we like to work. Soundscaping technologies enable us to create aural “storyboards” that cater to our sound needs throughout the day.

In our next article, we continue our discussion on human body systems and the work environment with a focus on Air. 

(Written by Yoko Kawai and Yvonne Burton)