The sound of productivity – How noise works against and for productivity

The year 2020 marked change in many ways, none more significant than in how organizations are reconsidering what productivity means, and the need to better understand how this will impact the way we work in the future.

A year on, the dynamic nature of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed our work styles significantly, spread out between the office and the home, depending on job roles.

For the latter, this means having to contend with the sounds of jackhammers from renovations coming from neighboring units, or road traffic from the open window to let in some air. At the same time, families must contend with children interrupting work-related conference calls to ask for help with homework and home-based learning, or simply the added distraction of squabbling over the television remote.

How then can we find pockets of focus and concentration among the distractions?

Using (white) noise and music to boost focus

In the office, the impact of noise and distraction is real. For years, office workers have had to contend with the numerous distractions that come with the common open office setup favored by many companies. That said, they do have the option to retreat to meeting rooms or quieter corners if they need to take work calls or be laser focus to complete a task or document.  

In contrast, home-based workers generally must make do with what they have. You may be fortunate to have a dedicated study room in which you can isolate yourself to focus and get things done. However, not many are lucky to have enough rooms in the home to do this. 

A recent survey by a California non-profit organization found that the top distraction for in-office employees in the United States are personal communications such as text or chat, checking personal email or surfing the web, and unplanned conversations. Parents working from home didn’t fare any differently; the same survey found that working parents face a distraction every 25 minutes during their workday. 

Whether at home or in the office, the more tech-savvy individuals turn to technology by purchasing noise-cancelling headsets; some headsets also come with pro-grade noise-cancelling microphones which pick up only your voice, ensuring that the people you are talking to hear only what you have to say.

That said, if you have a headset or just a set of speakers handy, smart use of noise (white noise, to be exact) can help you focus and be more productive. 

Much like how white light is made up of all the different colors (or frequencies) of light combined, white noise is a combination of all the different frequencies of sound. Combining sound this way means that white noise is particularly useful when masking other sounds. 

A simple way to explain white noise: Imagine you are in a busy café, and you can easily distinguish the individual voices of the different people having conversations, phone calls, or meetings. Multiply that effect by a factor of hundreds or thousands, and it all blends together on a roar of noise. Within that combined roar, it becomes difficult to distinguish one voice from another.

In the same way, white noise at a low volume can be used to help block out distracting noises and increase focus. A study done in a children’s school in Norway in 2010 indicated that the use of white noise in the background helped children with attention difficulties concentrate better.

Working at home, you could invest in a white noise machine to use during periods where focus is critical. White noise machines are devices that produce a stream of background noise that can qualify as “white noise”, such as the sounds of a fan, or sounds of nature like the rush of a waterfall, waves crashing on the beach, or wind blowing through the trees. 

If you don’t have a white noise machine on hand, a workable alternative can be through playlists containing those kinds of sounds on music services like Spotify to listen to while you work, either with headphones, or your computer speakers.

While office workers can also do the same, office planners and designers can take things one step further by using white noise to mask distractions in the workplace by raising ambient noise in specific areas by playing back sounds of waterfalls, wind, streams, and forests over hidden speakers.

Done right, this can help not only cover external distractions like telephone calls and conversations held over cubicle walls, but also to evoke feelings of calm that can in turn help workers focus better, and therefore improve productivity.

Music to your ears and productivity

Playing the right kind of music in the background, or over your headphones, may also land similar benefits of added focus and concentration. Specifically, baroque classical music was found by the American Roentgen Ray Society to have a great impact on productivity. Then there is the “Mozart effect”, where research found that Mozart’s K.448, a piano concerto, increased the human brain’s alpha waves, which have been linked to memory, cognition, and problem-solving.

Research aside, the simple explanation just might be that listening to music when you are stressed helps to regulate your mood, which in turn improves cognition and productivity. One way to dial-up the experience further is to use professional-grade headsets that would offer immersive audio output, as well as active noise-cancelling features. These headsets usually enable users to connect them to multiple devices and are compatible with the most popular video conferencing applications so that you can switch between calls and music seamlessly. 

Looking ahead to the future of productivity

In this new world of work as we are constantly shifting between hybrid working arrangements and the need to return to the office, it is indisputable that noise and distraction are among the top challenges to productivity. Therefore, it stands to reason that eliminating distractions can go a long way in improving focus, and by extension, productivity.

That said, it is also equally important to pay attention to why and how those distractions occur, as well as figuring out how to avoid such situations from happening in the future. For example, if you find yourself easily distracted, the simplest way to start is to turn off notifications on your phone that don’t relate to work, or for specific hours in a day where you want to be fully focused on the tasks at hand.

You can also try the Pomodoro technique, where you break the workday into 25-minute chunks, with breaks scheduled every three or four “Pomodoros”. Having scheduled breaks also helps you recharge and stay fresh throughout the day. 

The bottom line is this: The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed how we work, and as far as the future of productivity is concerned, there is no one recipe for success, no one-size-fits-all solution. 

Instead, we need to reflect on how we can best adapt, whether using technology, white noise, or any other tools or practices to find ways to help us perform at our best whether at home, in the office, or in between.