What Does the Future of Work Sound Like?
Now, in the third year of the pandemic, employers and employees alike are reconsidering the true purpose of the modern workplace. The majority of Americans (68%) now say that the ideal workplace model is one that allows for both remote and onsite work — a perspective that offers employers and designers an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the in-office employee experience. What will the future of collaborating and coworking look like? How will employers ensure workers’ safety, health, and well-being within their walls?
One surprising design solution is sound. We know through research that music and sound have the innate ability to change people’s emotional states. And while we have been able to unlock the power of sound for new platforms and products — such as through branded soundscapes at American Express, and custom sounds to enhance the safety of Nissan’s electric vehicles — sound has remained primarily an afterthought in the workplace.
Before the pandemic, two-thirds of U.S. office workers were in open office environments filled with bad acoustics and distracting noises from loud group meetings, phone and video calls, watercooler chatter, and the clicking of keyboards. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Made Music Studio’s research shows that companies can improve employees’ workplace experiences — by creating a sense of privacy, masking bad noise, and enhancing mood, focus, and even productivity — through the right use of sound.
Any company, small or large, can use sound to ensure that its office environment meets employees’ needs in this new era of work.
Curate interruption-free environments. Not everyone’s remote working environment is perfectly curated. Some employees might consider the workplace a welcome respite from the sonic unpredictability and distractions — whether from family members, construction, or other environmental noise — they experience when working from home.
Employers can offer employees private areas to engage in focused work, but they can also carefully curate the sonic experience, providing employees with their own version of an audio “blank canvas.” Be it silence (or perceived silence, through white noise or other audio masking techniques), the right playlist, or a customized ambience, thoughtfully designed sound can make the workplace environment a space free of acoustic interruptions, which may increase productivity. Research suggests that soothing sonic elements included in ambient soundscapes, such as subtle heartbeat-like pulses that gradually slow, can support brain function. Such sounds have the potential to transform the office into a place dedicated to uninterrupted focus time.
Design for creative collaboration. Employees see collaboration as the main purpose of this next era of the workplace, which makes sense, given that one study uncovered a 37% dip in time spent collaborating with colleagues since the pandemic. With this renewed push for settings that promote in-person collaboration and ignite creativity, designers can ensure that the office environment primes its inhabitants for success.
Made Music Studio’s research has found that a well-crafted, evolving soundscape can actually increase creativity, moving individuals into a relaxed state that is 16% more calming and 13% more pleasant compared with the typical office ambience. With new developments in playback technology, sound designers can now tap into further levels of depth and dynamism to ensure that those ambient soundscapes meaningfully improve our experiences. Such new tools allow us to replace tiresome loops or distracting playlists with “smart” soundscapes — dynamic soundscapes designed to adapt in real time to the hour of day, decibel level, or occupancy level — to ensure that thoughtfully designed sounds never become unwanted noise.
Create a space employees want to return to. The sound accompanying an experience is intrinsically linked to our subconscious desire to return to (or avoid) that same experience; there’s an 86% correlation, in fact. While you might not consciously realize its effects, sound may be a key factor affecting whether you want to return to a space.
Given sound’s ability to foster strong emotional connections, thoughtfully designed soundscapes can counteract the feelings of anxiety that might underscore many employees’ return to the office. Because hearing is our fastest sense — our brains process sound more quickly than any other type of sensory input — designers can use sound to create a new first impression: cultivating calm in the short term and building a deeper sense of belonging in the long term. This can be accomplished with ambient soundscapes that welcome people to a space and inspire curiosity and delight. Compositions that are subtle and more artistic in musical construction can in turn create experiences that employees actively want to return to.
As the workplace continues to be redefined, organizations and designers have the opportunity to uncover new tools and rethink how they use old ones. Sound will influence your workday whether you are strategic about it or not. What do you want that sound to communicate?
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