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Acoustics in the Workplace: The Sound of Success

Written by: on  June 14, 2011

We’ve all heard the complaints that usually accompany open-plan offices: “I can’t hear myself think”, “It’s impossible to hold a private conversation without being overheard”, and “It’s a mobile phone, for goodness sake – that means you can go somewhere else to chat loudly!”

Often when it comes to designing a working environment, functionality and aesthetics are the primary focus of the creation team, (assuming that cost-cutting is not the only factor), and little or no attention is paid to the acoustical environment. There are many assaulters to the ears, some which may be more obvious such as a lively colleague on the phone, and others which may be overlooked but can combine to create a cacophonic productivity destroyer, such as traffic outside or the whizz, whir, clunk of a tiring printer/copier.

The Research:

A survey researched by The Center For The Built Environment, Berkley, found that around 50% of people in open office environments think that acoustics interfere with their ability to get work done, and that people are mostly dissatisfied with hearing other people talking on telephones, people overhearing private conversations, and the sound of people talking in surrounding offices.  And yet with an increasing need for collaboration, quick information and ideas sharing there is clearly a balance to be struck between quiet and noisy spaces at work.  In fact, there are many people who contest that a ‘buzzy’ environment helps motivate them to do better work.

Further thought should be paid to the opportunity to use ambient sound to literally create the ‘tone’ of a workplace, to dial up the volume of your internal brand.   The notion of “Sonic Branding” is not new.  Just think of the “dah dah dah daaaah” of Intel, the “bowwwm” of an Apple computer starting up or McDonald’s unmistakable jingle, and you’ll know what I mean.  In marketing, sonic branding is becoming an increasingly strong vehicle for conveying a memorable message to targeted consumers.  From non-lyrical sound bites to catchy snippets of tunes, these sonic brands take advantage of one of the brain’s most powerful memory senses – sound.

This vehicle could also be used as a way of conveying internal messages and creating a distinct identity – that makes employees feel at home (whilst cleverly masking the sound of the aircon!) In my opinion, enviable workspaces pay attention to the ‘soft’ details, taking sound, light and colour to a different level altogether, as we see at Bloomberg, Inc:

Blommberg office lighting

Hard Facts, Soft Touches

There’s a distinctive aural and visual identity that makes you feel at home at any Bloomberg location. Amidst the hubbub of the public areas the occasional jingle sounds, gluing together conversation to create a familiar ambiance, while colour and light is used at every opportunity. Above each lift door a huge block of light beams green for ‘up’ and red for ‘down’, and each floor has a signature colour for easy navigation. Accent lighting on stairways glows red to the east, blue to the west; coloured glass meeting rooms tell you where you are and who’s meeting who; and vibrant information displays keep people up to date in an instant – green, a market is rising; red, it’s taken a tumble; purple for general news; and blue lets you know that it’s sunny in Damascus.

In a business that is built on processing data, making quick-fire decisions and relaying time-critical information, one might expect the environment to be dominated by numbers, facts and figures. However, as the Bloomberg space sets out to stimulate the whole brain, a huge emphasis is also placed on sensorial aspects. The numbers still are there, but [they have been designed] into the fabric of the space, providing both navigational guidance and visual interest. Directories etched into meeting room walls provide quick orientation with shorthand numbers and digits indicating north, south, east or west and floor numbers. Even [the ubiquitous] flamboyant tropical fish serve a profound sensory purpose, as Tom Keene, Editor at Large for Bloomberg News Radio, reveals: ‘Six years ago, I’d have said “how cute”, but now, I realise that there’s a deeper psychological link to our culture.’ More than just interesting decoration, they mirror the activity of Bloomberg employees, and further, they provide an escape from the activity. Often you will find people slowing their pace as they pass, pausing, gazing, commenting on their favourite fish to a colleague who stops by.

Bloomberg office fishesAn extract from “I Wish I Worked There! – A Look Inside the Most Creative Spaces in Business” by Kursty Groves, Will Knight and photographs by Edward Denison.



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