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The Effect of Sound on Productivity at Work

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If we asked you to describe your workplace, would you include the way it sounds?

Based on our informal and unscientific Google research, you’re not alone if you said no. Most often, people think of the vibe. They tend to mention pleasing spaces or complain about physically uncomfortable workplaces.

But today we’re asking you to think about the effect of sound on you and your team’s productivity.

Sound, or more specifically noise, is a top concern for workers, according to The Sound Agency, a company that specializes in sound branding.

What’s the difference between sound and noise? Sound is anything you can hear. Noise is unwanted sound.

From chatty colleagues to loud music, we’re going to explore the effect of sound at work, and offer ideas for reducing negative impacts.

The Effect of Sound at Work

You and your team work with noise around you every day. When the level of noise is too loud, it interferes with your well-being and productivity.

In an industrial or busy restaurant or club environment, the effect of sound can be easy to define. Examples include:

  • Complaints of ringing or humming in their ears after leaving work
  • People having to shout to be heard
  • Temporary hearing loss

It gets trickier to identify the effects of sound in offices and retail environments. Some examples include:

  • Frequent miscommunication among coworkers or between you and your team
  • Poorly taken orders in a retail, call centre or restaurant setting
  • Reduced productivity without any apparent explanation

Noise can be so invasive that lab studies have shown that noise stimulates your nervous system, increasing blood pressure. In turn, your body releases stress hormones. Constant noise also stresses your cardiovascular system, which can trigger anger, anxiety and exhaustion.

Your team can experience a noticeable change in their level of engagement and performance when exposed to noise. In fact, increased noise levels affect productivity. This is especially noticeable when performing tasks that include reading and comprehension. It can also be more challenging to perform complex tasks well when exposed to prolonged noise.

Is the Effect of Sound Becoming a Problem?

Understanding the effects of sound in the workplace might help you be more sensitive to potential issues. If you sense noise might be a problem, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is productivity low with no other explanation?
  • Is there increased illness and absenteeism?
  • Do you see signs of decreased morale?
  • Are people irritable and creating conflict?
  • Do people seem tired with no other explanation?
  • Are people moving their work to quieter areas such as conference rooms, lunchrooms, or even the washroom?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might have a noise issue.

Types of Noise at Work

To be an effective problem solver, you have to learn to spot the issues. Many familiar sounds can become noise that negatively affects people at work.


Listening to music while working can offer many benefits. However, some people believe that the repetitive, loud music played in stores, cafés, and restaurants is a workers’ rights issue. Music can be a problem whether it’s coming from a coworker’s desk, a radio playing in a warehouse, or music blasted over a company sound system.

Open workspaces

Open plan offices, malls, retail stores, parks (think landscaping or maintenance work) and warehouses can amplify sounds such as voices, equipment, and music.


It’s common for warehouses and manufacturing facilities to have equipment and vehicle noise. Large open loading docks can also add exterior noises such as traffic, construction sites, or nearby factories.

Voices and Conversations

Conversation between coworkers ranks as the number one work distraction, according to research by the German Environment Agency.  Productivity at work drops when there are conversations within earshot of workers. And, if there are many or loud voices and people can’t hear each clearly, stress levels increase.

Addressing General Noise Issues

Noise reduction takes effort and commitment from you, your team and the organization. While you can control every circumstance, there are many noise factors you can change or seek for others to change. Here are a few examples of things you can do to reduce any adverse effects of sound on you and your team:

Designate a space for quiet work and down time. Set an example by using the area yourself, whenever it’s appropriate.

Introduce the practice of using a meeting room or other space away from everyone for teamwork that requires a lot of conversation. The goal is to encourage collaboration while keeping the noise down for people working on their own.

Use ambient sound (also known as white noise) to help counteract distracting noises. There are several sound masking products on the market that could be appropriate for your workspace.

Propose to higher management ways to separate your team from equipment or construction noise. If separation isn’t possible, ensure everyone has adequate hearing protection. As always, when presenting ideas for approval, outline the cost of the issue (e.g. productivity or absenteeism rates). Also, provide the cost-benefit of your idea along with the benefits to the employees.

Negotiate suitable song choices and volume for any music played at work. (Heavy bass lines can be just as disruptive as volume.) Encourage the team to discuss any concerns and share ideas for solutions. Also, avoid repetitive music that makes music become an irritant.

Many times conversation becomes a noise issue. If the conversation is necessary to collaboration or teamwork, consider moving it away from the main work area. If it’s frequent and unnecessary chatter, remind the people involved that can be disruptive to their coworkers. Recommend that they save the talk for the break room.

Noise Prevention

Like anything, preventing or stopping noise as soon as possible is better than trying to remove it.

Make sure your team knows to alert you to any issues they’re experiencing with the sounds around them. Encourage them to recommend solutions that will protect or promote productivity. And, support their recommendations whenever you can. Besides helping them develop problem-solving skills, you show your commitment to their well-being.

Of course, there will always be sounds in your workplace. But do you know which are also noises with negative effects? Watch for signs that your workplace soundscape poses a threat to productivity then take steps to adjust what you can.

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