Understanding audio can lead to productivity and wellness gains

Anna Mitchell explores options for controlling sound in the workplace and finds techniques to harness the power of sound as well as reduce unwanted noise.

Sound generates powerful emotions. Unwanted noise distracts and irritates; a film soundtrack can elicit dread, sadness or elation; music moves people; and there are even conditions where noises can trigger fear (phonophobia) or extreme emotional or physiological responses (misophonia).

Despite the well-documented power of sound, it’s often not considered in the same way as temperature and light or even furniture and interior design. While many workplaces regulate temperature, block unwanted light, offer ergonomic office furniture and even consider how décor will attract the right staff and create the right atmosphere; a great many have no policies regarding audio or pay any care or attention to creating a good sonic environment. 

Evan Benway [pictured right]  joined audio marketing consultancy The Sound AgencyEvan headshot around a year ago with a goal to create the Moodsonic product line. Benway, joint managing director of The Sound Agency, has a background in acoustics, biophilia, and workplace experience. The Moodsonic product creates soundscapes designed to promote wellbeing and productivity. 

Biophilic design aims to create buildings that connect their occupants with nature. Many of its approaches – use of natural light, plants… even incorporating animals and fire – don’t have anything to do with AV or even technology. But, Benway says as the trend gains traction, soundscaping is one way that AV pros can get involved. 

“Trying to bring nature indoors for the benefit of people inside has been really well understood for years,” he says. “Natural light or views of nature have some really profound effects on people, whether its workers in offices who see restorative and productivity benefits, or people in healthcare environments who will recover faster from routine surgeries and take less pain medication because they actually feel less pain. 

“The science is now starting to look at sound. For several years, acousticians looking at the biophilic hypothesis have found that a lot of the same principles hold true with sound as well. What's fascinating about these biophilic soundscapes is that they work better on large samples of people than alternative soundscapes. 

“Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York compared nature soundscapes, primarily a water-based soundscape with birdsong. And they compared that soundscape to a number of different conditions including silence. Silence has always been really the gold standard. People perform best in silence on cognitively demanding tasks.

“People were getting better scores on this cognitive test in the nature soundscape than in silence. In addition to having a higher initial score, their scores stayed high as they continued taking tests. The cognitive decline that happens as people fatigue throughout the day didn’t happen as much in the natural soundscape as it happened in the silent condition.” 

nick headshot 300px colAwareness of the importance of sound and noise is growing but, according to Nick Hunn [pictured left], CTO of WiFore Consulting, there’s still a long way to go. Hunn is a physicist and has contributed to the development of a huge range of products and technologies. He has specialised in wireless technology for 30 years, driving WiFi and Bluetooth standards and take-up. He’s also really interested in how we use audio, how we deal with hearing loss and how sound is considered in building design. 

He says: “I’m helping a start-up called Mumbli, which has been looking at the effect of noise in workplaces and venues. One of the first things they did was to look at how to improve the performance of the accelerator building they’re based in.  

“They’ve been talking to architects and shared workspace developers to understand how much effort they put into acoustic performance and getting the answer that in most cases, it’s none. It’s just seen as additional cost, and as it’s typically the last thing that’s installed, it gets dropped.”

The consequences of ignoring sound in building and workspace design can be catastrophic. Conversely, by harnessing it, you can do a lot more than just reduce irritations. 

Benway says: “We would use natural sound in most cases. But sometimes people want to focus on reduction in distraction or an increase in privacy. For that we would choose sounds with certain frequency response characteristics that make them effective at covering up distracting speech, so they'll have a little bit more energy in higher frequencies where speech intelligibility is communicated. 

“If we're designing for restoration, then we would use something that's less constant in those higher frequencies. Studies have shown ocean waves are particularly good at this with a particular frequency where the waves lap around 12 to 15 cycles per minute.”

He says that music is generally best avoided because it elicits such a strong emotional response and is very subjective. “We have found soundscapes that include musical components that increase energy levels. If that's the design goal, a musical soundscape might be fitting. But otherwise, we tend to want to use something that's based on nature.”

Moodsonic creates algorithmically generated soundscapes and Benway says that’s important: “We started with birdsong and it didn't work. It wasn't until later, when we came across researchers who are doing a better job of it that we realised it was the way we were creating the soundscape that didn't work. In that case we were using a loop that was a week long, and people picked up on that.” 

When it comes to opportunities, Graeme Harrison [pictured right] , vice president andGH headshot web general manager of Bluesound Professional, says the AV industry might be missing out.

“There are four steps [to creating good sonic environments],” he argues. “Firstly, you have to remove any extraneous noise such as AC, drinks machines, projectors. These should be positioned away [from workspaces] or sound should be absorbed. Then you have to work on the acoustics of the space. Only when you’ve done that should you start thinking about the sound system you’re going to put in and how you route the sound. Finally, you think about the content you're putting through it. That's where generative soundscapes, appropriate music in retail spaces or biophilic sound masking is important. 

“We, as an industry, get obsessed by the third bit, which is the gear we put into the space. It's only one step. You have to think about the whole environment.” 

Talking about improving shared spaces might seem a little out of step with the times given the coronavirus pandemic is forcing us apart. But, according to Graeme Harrison, musician and audiophile as well as vice president and general manager of Bluesound Professional, there’s all the more reason to consider it now. 

“How are you going to draw people back into public spaces?” he asks. “I think really compelling, immersive experiences are going to be a real key to that. Sound can be used to actively promote productivity and sound masking, specifically biophilic sound masking, is very effective.”

Moodsonic staged a demo of the soundscape product in Amsterdam at ISE at the beginning of the year and used Bluesound Professional’s BSP 125 speakers. 
“[The demo] was different to what I expected,” says Harrison. “With normal sound masking you put noise over the ambient, so that you psychoacousticaly pull the whole thing down. Evan [from Moodsonic] used sound masking at a much lower level. You can hear the noise but it takes away your ability to specifically hear words. It comes through as some noise in the background with some natural sounds and you don't focus on it because you can't pick up individual words. It was really not intrusive at all.”

But how about just shutting it all out and creating your own totally personalised sonic environment? It’s something noise cancelling headphones have offered the consumer for many years but there’s now an uptick in interest from – as well as products for – the professional space. 

As the technology has become more sophisticated, specific sounds can be filtered through the headset. So, for example, you’ll hear a colleague next to your desk talking to you, but you won’t be distracted by the background hum of general office noise. 

Bose, a pioneer in the noise cancelling space, is directly targeting its 700 series headphones (a favourite with consumers) at the professional space through its Bose Work business group that focuses on conferencing. To woo corporate clients the headphones connect via a robust USB connection and are certified to work with Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Meet. 

BosePro_Martin Bodley webMartin Bodley [pictured left], director and global head of Bose Work for Bose Professional, says that wearable technology is perfect for an open office space where you can’t control the environment in the way you would a smaller breakout or meeting space. 

With many offices providing a variety of spaces, each focused on supporting a particular task, people could traverse through areas with headphones that would learn working patterns and automatically adapt to suit different spaces, and therefore different tasks?

Bodley says: “I have not seen anyone implement that but it’s certainly doable with the technology we have today.”

Hunn also sees potential for wearable headsets in the workplace but he’s cautious from a comfort point of view. He outlines a social aspect too.  

“If you're sitting in an office and you go up to somebody who's wearing ear buds and you say something to them, can they hear you? 

“We've got technology that means these devices can pick up a conversation and increase the outside sound and turn down the music. But would you expect somebody engaging conversation to take them out? If they keep them in, even if you know they probably turned off the music and they're listening to you, is there still a feeling they're not actually taking that much notice of me? There’s some interesting social issues that I don't think anybody's really started thinking about very much.”

Bodley agrees that headphones can create a barrier but believes we’ll adapt and get used to many aspects of this. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at Bose he says the staff now find it natural to converse with headphones on.  

“There’s been discussion around maybe a light or an LED or some indicator: green means my noise cancelling is off, red means I don't want to be disturbed,” he continues. “In an open office space, the indicator doesn't necessarily have to be on your head, it could be somewhere in your desk area.

“My preference actually in a lot of work and play environments would be to have nothing in the ear. So small devices, like either Bose Frames [sunglasses with built-in speakers], or they clip over your ear but are not in your ear. I think people would be much more approachable with something like that on.”

Bodley says there are lots of variants of Bose Frames being considered and products suited to the corporate space comes into those discussions. 

Hunn believes we’re in the early of days of use of headphones integrated with corporate platforms and technology and used in the office. One of the reasons for the slow start is they’re seen as individual purchases. It feels like we’ve been here before however with initial resistance against the BYOD trend before personalisation was seen as a positive.

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And Hunn is quick to say that he believes the situation will change over the next few years, citing the next generation of Bluetooth specifications as one of the reasons. “[The specifications] allow a lot more flexibility for earbuds and headsets to work with multiple applications. My guess is that will be a gradual evolution.”

If wearable devices for audio (hearables as they are dubbed in some quarters) are to become more ubiquitous in the office who is set to dominate this space? Tech giants are all coming to market with solutions, while audio companies have a great heritage to draw on here. 

Hunn thinks that hearing aid companies could be a surprise contender. “I do think that we would benefit from more emphasis on comfortable hearing designs which can be worn for eight hours a day. The hearing aid manufacturers have got there, but not with mass market devices.

“Again, the hearing aid industry has been ahead with algorithms that can try to determine where you are, e.g. office, home, street or restaurant, and then adjust what you hear based on that. I expect to see that in consumer products in the near future.”

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