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Is Background Noise Good For Productivity?

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No matter how hard a person tries to be productive, distractions at work exist. It’s just a fact of life. But, are some of these nuisances actually helping us get work done?

Let’s face it, noise is everywhere. From the moment we get up in the morning (to a beeping alarm mind you) to the loud construction and traffic noise during our commute, our day starts clouded with background noise. But that’s just the start right? Walking into the office we face ringing phones, fax machines, printers, copiers, coworker conversations, coffee makers and just about anything else you can think of. And while we can’t escape the constant murmur of muffled sounds, our brains can choose to turn off particular ones when it comes to being productive. The question is, which ones are easily tuned out and which ones aren’t?

In a study conducted by Cambridge Sound Management, it was discovered that 30% of workers are distracted by coworker conversations. Interestingly enough, it isn’t the actual noise of the conversation that hinders productivity according to Cambridge Sound Management acoustical expert Justin Stout, “When we talk about distractions what we’re primarily concerned with is intelligibility.”

While it’s easy to make out the words spoken by the broadcaster on the television in the airport lounge, the various sounds in the coffee shop are jumbled together, creating what is frequently referred to as a “hum.” In the coffee shop, the noise is meaningless in my brain. It’s not intelligible speech that I’m trying to pay attention to, it’s just a cacophony of sound.

The key to enhancing productivity through sound is consistently generating that office “hum”—the unintelligible mixture of sounds.


© Flickr user Moresheth

Turns out, our brains get distracted when background noise–namely conversation–is intriguing. We may have every intention on being productive, but at times, our intelligence gets the better of us and suddenly we can’t put our ear muffs on. It’s certainly difficult to admit that coworker A’s conversation with coworker B about her dog’s trip to the veterinarian was the cause for being behind schedule, but as human beings it’s simply in our nature. Our brains are such that we simply can’t resist the portal to intellectual stimulation. And despite our best attempts, like listening to music or changing the color of our office, it’s difficult to salvage productivity when background noise is more than just a “hum”. So what is the solution?

For one, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can override the noise without any sort of intervention. Just attempting to ignore a neighbor’s phone call will only make you more frustrated and annoyed. In fact, it will probably increase the time in which you are unproductive.

So, our suggestion is get to the bottom of what’s really the problem and work from there. If you find that your cube mate’s conversation are a constant source of distraction for you, ask if you can relocate to a different area in the office. Or, get them a new headset so they don’t have to talk as loudly. According to Stout, defining quiet spaces in the workplace is very beneficial:

. . . create separate zones for focus-driven work, giving employees the option to retreat to a quiet space if needed, and providing secluded areas for employees to hold private phone conversations.

Another great solution is implementing the concept of workplace popcorn. For those avid Methodology Blog followers you may remember this cool idea we highlighted a while back. It’s coffee shop hopping at its best, and can provide the beautiful background hum you’ve been craving when productivity is an absolute must! To refresh your minds, below is a brief summary of Joel Runyan’s concept:

Workplace popcorn is a four step process that has you popping from place to place completing work projects as you go. It’s workflow that is fast-paced, defined, goal-oriented and scenic to boot. It certainly keeps you focused and most importantly, creates an avenue for achieving multiple levels of productivity in a single day.

Here’s the deal: distractions pop up all over the place. At times you may be able to prevent them from creeping into your office, but if you could use some expert advice on how to truly combat workflow interruptions, consider reaching out to us here at AccelaWork!

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Ashley Lee

Ashley Lee

Ashley has been working with the AccelaWork team since 2008. She is a communications expert with a background in corporate work, and a graduate of the University of Dayton with a degree in Public Relations. She lives in the greater Indianapolis area with her husband and four children. Ashley enjoys jewelry, fashion, and coffee.
Ashley Lee

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