Natural sound: why biophilic design extends to office acoustics
You can close your eyes in the open plan office – but you can’t close your ears. Evan Benway explains why the biophilia impulse in the workplace applies to hearing as much as sight
I invite you to participate in a brief exercise. If nothing else, it will improve your mood. You are likely sitting indoors at a computer, but I want you to allow your imagination to transport you somewhere else, anywhere in the world.
Imagine yourself in the place where you feel your optimal self. Envision a place of beauty, a place that makes you feel inspired, at peace, relaxed, fulfilled and full of a sense of wellbeing. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like? Now, close your eyes and take a few moments to imagine yourself in this place.
Where were you just now? Were you at the beach? In the woods? At a lake? At the top of a mountain or near a stream? I can’t accurately predict where your imagination just took you, but I can tell you that if you are like over 95 per cent of participants in this exercise to date, your imagination took you somewhere outdoors.
Preference for natural settings
Due to the types of environments in which Homo Sapiens evolved, we have innate physical preferences for certain natural settings, and the visual, auditory and other sensory stimuli associated with them. This innate tendency is known as biophilia, literally ‘love of life’, and it helps explain why, for example, humans have a profoundly positive response to natural light (and why light deprivation causes such harm). We have known for years now that patients exposed to natural light or views of nature make fewer requests for pain medication and recover from surgery faster. 
When presented with the exercise above, the clear majority of us are of the opinion that nature is where we are at our best. Yet how much of our lives do we actually spend in nature? According to research from the US Environmental Protection Agency, we now spend 87 per cent of our lives indoors. And another 6 per cent in the car. That leaves just 7 per cent spent outdoors. We dream of a restorative natural environment, yet we spend our lives at desks and in offices. The built environment has become our habitat.
‘We now spend 87 per cent of our lives indoors and another 6 per cent in the car…’
We ought to pay special attention to the modern workplace, as that is where we spend the majority of our waking hours, and it is where a single design concept has come to dominate: the open office. According to the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), 70 per cent of Americans now work out of open-plan offices. One hears a great deal about the increased collaboration, information-sharing, and productivity the barrier-free office is meant to enable, but one facet of the open office is clear: it has saved companies massive amounts of money on their real estate.
By creating denser floor plans, and packing more people into smaller spaces, companies get to economise on their second largest cost (the first being their employees). And lest you think this is just an American trend, let me assure you that office ‘densification’ is a global phenomenon. A global survey by CoreNet Global demonstrated a precipitous drop in space per office worker from 225 sq ft in 2010 to 150 sq ft in 2017. The economic logic of densification appears inexorable.
Not delivering on promise
Cost savings and increased collaboration – what’s not to love? Unfortunately, it’s not so clear that the collaborative open office is delivering on its promise. According to research by Gensler, time spent collaborating is actually down by 20 per cent in the new collaborative office, while time spent focusing has increased by 13 per cent, as workers struggle to get their work done out in open plan space.
In fact, other than cost savings, this inability to focus is the most clearly-established consequence of modern workspace design. The modern worker is plagued by distraction. And researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that one source of distraction dwarfs all others. Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment surveyed over 65,000 people in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia and found that speech distraction was the top complaint.
‘Inability to focus is the most clearly-established consequence of modern workspace design…’
As it turns out, our primordial sense of hearing is extremely well-adapted to survival in the outdoors, but ill-adapted to the acoustics of the open office. Our hearing is omnidirectional and always on, even while we sleep. And our hearing is especially attuned to dynamic sounds, sounds that leap above the noise floor, making it an excellent alarm system. We are especially sensitive to human speech, even at a whisper—a great aid to survival and cooperation in the wild.
Distraction causing stress
But what worked great for hunter gatherers is driving knowledge workers nuts. We have an exceptional ability to pick up on human speech—indeed we are hardwired to pay attention to it—yet we are unable to ignore it and do our work. It interferes with exactly the type of cognitive tasks drawn upon by knowledge workers, such as reading, quantitative reasoning, and accessing working memory. And as research from the University of California, Irvine demonstrates, attempting to concentrate in the presence of such distraction causes stress, and the associated host of psychological and physiological ailments.
According to Gensler, 42 per cent of workers have taken matters into their own hands, creating makeshift solutions, walling themselves off from the rest of the office with active noise-cancelling headphones, and listening to music or the sounds of a bustling café. Perhaps worst of all, some have turned to pseudo-random noise such as white noise and pink noise (go to www.simplynoise.com to listen to these sounds) – this is capable of covering up distracting speech but can also cause stress, annoyance and anger.
Now that you are familiar with the din of the open office, let’s revisit that exercise from a moment ago in which I asked you to imagine your happy place. Remember where your imagination took you? Now focus not just on what it looked like, but what it sounded like. Can you hear the waves? Or maybe a babbling brook? Are there birds chirping? Leaves rustling? I can guarantee you aren’t listening to a colleague having a phone call.
Biophilic sound works too
It turns out that the biophilic hypothesis applies not just to sight, but to hearing as well. We have known for years that natural light and views of nature can profoundly benefit humans. We are now learning that the same applies to sound.
In a breakthrough study in 2011, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health discovered that a natural spring water sound could function as a ‘speech masker’, covering up distracting speech, and that it was subjectively preferred to other sounds. This was confirmed by research from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) demonstrating that natural sounds are preferred to typical office acoustics.
In 2015, in an important leap forward, the researchers at RPI additionally found that subjects given cognitively-demanding tasks in the presence of sound saw their productivity scores remain higher over time in the presence of a natural water sound. Even compared to silence, the water sounds had a buoying effect, lifting up the cognitive abilities of the test subjects.
I wanted to see how we might apply this research to the open office, and I began asking some questions. If we were to intentionally design the acoustical environments in which we work, what would they sound like? We know that completely silent buildings are not ideal, and they certainly don’t fare well once distracting speech is introduced. We know that ‘white’ or ‘pink’ noise (think airplane cabin noise) is fatiguing, and we know that natural sounds can be tremendously beneficial.
The culmination of our research and development efforts led to a critical evolution in office design, the creation of biophilic soundscapes specifically designed to enhance the open office experience. We have been able to design a range of ‘moodscapes’, each created in real-time by computer-based generative algorithms, each designed to elicit and maintain a specific desirable psycho-physiological state.
It’s estimated there are six billion square feet of open-plan office space in the world. That means there are millions of people whose lives are being blighted by noise-induced stress, and thousands of organisations losing out with increased staff turnover and absenteeism, as well as reduced productivity. We believe that biophilic soundscapes can help redeem the open plan environment, enhancing both wellbeing and effectiveness.
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 Quarto, T., Blasi, G., Pallesen, K. J., Bertolino, A., Brattico, E. ‘Implicit Processing of Visual Emotions Is Affected by Sound-Induced Affective States and Individual Affective Traits’, PLOS ONE, 2014.