Negative Effects of Background Noise in the Workplace

background noise in workplace

We all want a little quiet time.

It helps us get our work done, problem solve, relax and overall just reflect on the things that matter the most. Major companies and organizations such as Google are investing in creative ways to give their employees more privacy to help their focus and overall mental state. One of the biggest entrepreneurship centers in the country, located at the University of Tampa has even purchased soundproof quiet pods where entrepreneurs can gather by themselves or with others to get away from the bustling noise just outside the pod.

Some of us like to listen to music in the background while we work but is that actually beneficial? It depends. A recent study in Glasgow, UK looked at how background music effects introverts and extroverts. Turns out background music on all levels affected task performance on both groups to some extent. Extroverts were affected less than introverts while performing cognitive tasks such as reading and writing, paying attention and working with numbers, while introverts performed much better when the background music was LA (low arousal) or there was complete silence.

So if background music doesn’t help with cognitive tasks on the workplace, can you use a white noise machine instead? Perhaps not, according to one study on school children in a middle-school setting. The study showed that children with no attention problems had more difficulty paying attention during class than with a white noise machine. Interestingly enough though, children with attention problems actually performed better with the white noise machine.white noise stat

Silence might be the one tried and true way to improve attention and cognitive performance for everyone in the workplace. However, there are some exceptions to this. A recent study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at how different noise levels affected creativity. Participants were asked to brainstorm unique uses for a brick while listening to different levels of noise. Surprisingly, participants performed worse when listening to low noise (50 decibels – the equivalent of a large office) than when listening to high noise (70 decibels – a little quieter than a noisy urban area during the day). When the noise level increased, participants had more difficulty thinking, leading to more abstract and “big picture” ideas. However, when the noise level increased to 85 decibels (the sound of a garbage disposal), thinking became so difficult that the creativity boost they had went away.

So it seems that when it comes to dealing with noise in the workplace, like most things, isn’t as easy or black and white as one would like it to be. As it may be, it’s not about getting rid of any noise but having control over it. Implementing absorption panels or putting that white noise in the right place can quickly turn the office environment around.

Fernando Eguez

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