Why background noise may help us work better

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 min read
technology, home, music and lifestyle concept - smiling man with laptop and headphones at home
But why do some of us miss the white noise of offices — and can this background hum even help us to work better? Photo: Getty

Our environment has a huge impact on the way we work and how happy, efficient and productive we are. With many people working from home at the moment, much of the conversation around workspaces has centred on how to avoid distractions like loud housemates, children and neighbours doing lockdown DIY. But what if you’re finding it hard to get work done because it’s too quiet at home?

If you’re used to working in an office with ambient noise, you may find it surprisingly difficult to work from a quiet home. Instead of the usual sounds of colleagues chatting, coffee machines, printers and typing, there’s just silence — which to some people, can be deafening.

In recent months, an increasing number of people have turned to “fake office noise” websites to recreate the sounds familiar to desk workers. Thousands of people are using sites like I Miss the Office and Office Noise Generator to feel more like they’re back in their offices, rather than their kitchens. You can even tailor the noise to suit your exact workplace by increasing certain sounds like air conditioning units.

But why do some of us miss the white noise of offices — and can this background hum even help us to work better?

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“Levels of noise are a particular distraction to people when they are trying to work. We expect a certain level of background noise — this feels appropriate and comfortable,” says Binna Kandola, business psychologist at Pearn Kandola. “Too much noise, however, is both distracting and annoying, while total silence is unnerving as well.”

Humans are creatures of habit, so those who are accustomed to working in an office may find it easier to get into “work mode” if they can hear the same kind of sounds. But some suggest fake office noise also helps to take away the feeling of isolation may remote workers struggle with.

Before COVID-19, many of us thought remote working sounded blissful. However, research suggests many employees are now longing for chats in the communal kitchen to stave off feelings of isolation, exacerbated by social restrictions under lockdown. According to a Totaljobs survey of 2,000 UK workers taken in July, almost half (46%) have experienced loneliness during lockdown.

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Although fake office noise is no substitute for actual human company or a conversation with a friend, it has the potential to make us feel less alone by tricking us into thinking we’re around others. And without the buffer of a commute, the ability to turn off the “office noise” may also signal the end of the working day too.

Research suggests non-invasive background noise might be most beneficial for creativity and productivity, rather than total silence. To find out more, Ravi Mehta, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asked four groups of volunteers to engage in a creative thinking test while exposed to different decibels of noise.

These noise levels included complete silence, 50 decibels, 70 decibels and 85 decibels. The results showed that participants exposed to 70 decibels of background noise performed significantly better than their counterparts.

Some people suggest that ambient sounds such as white noise, nature sounds or gentle music can be effective accompaniments to work because they help us get into a “flow state.” In other words, they help us fully immerse in what we’re doing, boosting our focus.

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A separate study of more than 4,500 people by TotalJobs found 79% can boost their productivity by listening to music. According to music psychologist Dr Anneli Haake, who was involved in the research, this is partly because music can be a mental stimulant and when people become stimulated by the work they are doing, their performance can increase.

However, whether you can concentrate better or not depends on what kind of music or noise you can hear, what kind of work you are doing and your personality, too.

“We can work in situations where there is considerable noise, just look at the number of people working in busy coffee shops,” Kandola says, but this isn’t for everyone — especially if you’re working on something complex.

“Another method to adopt is to identify those tasks which require background levels of noise to be much lower,” he adds.

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