Which is worse: noise, or the sound of silence?

If you’re one of the many people who find offices too noisy, and think the best solution is to work from home instead, you’re quite possibly wrong. Here’s why – plus some ideas for better solutions.

First off, noise is a problem for many of us at home, as well as in the office. Perhaps you’re disturbed by loud conversations and/or other sounds while trying to work. Or you worry about your phone calls disturbing others or being overheard.

I’d already been planning to blog on this topic, not least because one of the commonest questions from prospective new members of the West London co-working space* where I’m based is: “What about making phone calls? Will I annoy people?”

That was before I met Paul Clark, EMEA senior VP at audio & video specialist Poly. As we chatted over our shared interest in audio, he told me about a multinational project Poly has run, asking several thousand people about their attitudes to work.

Noisy offices are a #1 annoyance

He says noisy colleagues were the number one complaint people had about offices pre-Covid, and that they’re now the number two reason – after commuting – for not wanting to go back to the office. He adds though that, while “getting away from that noise was one of the things people loved about working from home, 33% also find the home too noisy!” Whether it’s family or pets, builders next door, or having to work at the kitchen table while the washing machine runs, it’s not ideal.

So what are some possible fixes? If you’re starting from scratch with a new space, you can use good design to absorb, block or cover noise. As a simple example of absorbing, compare being in an old-style restaurant with carpets and tablecloths with visiting a modern venue that’s all echoey hard surfaces. For blocking, think perhaps of an open-plan office versus one with walls or partitions.

Cover noise with an ambient soundscape

Covering noise is a little different. Paul suggests that one way is to create a ‘background soundscape’ by injecting sounds – it could be music but that’s too distracting for some people, and it’s variable so it doesn’t give even coverage. A better option is biophilic (more natural seeming) sound, such as forest or river noises, or even the soft hubbub of an active office. Voice still propagates then, but it falls below the ambient more rapidly with increasing distance.

This extra noise can’t be too loud, of course – ideally you’d have an active system that adjusts the level of sound added according to how busy the place is. That’s because of that ambient audio effect where, in a quiet environment, you can hear noise you might not otherwise notice – a humming printer, say, or the air conditioning. And in the same vein, a phone call on the other side of the room, which would disappear into the background in busy times, becomes embarrassingly easy to overhear.

Most of us don’t have the opportunity to define a new workspace, however, and while it’s possible to retrofit background noise, it’s not so easy to do it well. Let’s look instead then at what I tell my worried co-workers: use a decent headset.

When you’re alone, it’s fine to use your phone’s earbuds or even your laptop’s speakers and microphone, but in a busier office they’re likely to be unpopular. The fact of the microphone being in the earbud or laptop, or in the cable from ear to phone, has two effects. The technical one is the device has to work harder to capture good audio out of the air, while the psychological one is that you tend to speak as if you’re talking to someone face to face – someone who’s a bit deaf.

That would be bad enough if you were face to face, and is even less necessary when others are in earshot – and when there’s a lot of very sophisticated audio-processing electronics between you and your interlocutor!

Good headphones can help

A good set of headphones with a boom microphone is a relatively easy fix. There’s a huge range of styles available, both wired and wireless – for example, sets such Jabra’s Evolve have booms that can fold away when not in use, leaving them looking like ordinary headphones. Others, like the Poly Voyager series, have shorter booms with a vibe that’s more science fiction than call centre, while Logitech’s Zone series offers a modern take on the classic design.

There’s several reasons why headphones like these can help. They give audio feedback to the wearer – that’s important as it adds focus and encourages you to speak more softly. Good ones also have multiple microphones which allow beamforming, where the device ‘focuses’ on the sound source you want (that’s you!) and ignores others. Some have active noise cancellation as well, to reduce ambient sound.

A couple of caveats: while close-fitting headphones help concentration by blocking outside noise, they can also lead us to forget we’re not alone… And if your headphones come with a dongle, you should get better results with that than with a laptop’s built-in Bluetooth. That’s because laptops, unlike smartphones, often have only a fairly basic set of Bluetooth profiles, and lack the likes of HD stereo.

To conclude, as desk-based workers strive to define and adjust to a ‘new normal’, many of challenges we face are audio-based. Whether it’s the sound we make or the noises that impact us, our audio environment is much more important than we give credit for.

*If you’re fed up with working from home, but aren’t yet ready to go back to commuting five days a week, then I seriously recommend looking for local co-working spaces. As well as the mainstream commercial operators, there’s a stack of local operators. Some of these are social enterprises, and most of them are cheaper than the big companies.