If you were to ask someone who spent their 20s in the 1980s to describe what the era looked like, they’d probably be able to give you a vivid description; lycra, big hair, fishnet gloves, George Michael music videos, clubbing, bright colours, lines of poverty, Maggie Thatcher, the list goes on. However, if you were to ask that same person what the 1980s sounded like, they’d probably struggle to come up with a detailed description that wasn’t solely focused on music.
The point is, sound affects everything and arguably plays as large, if not a larger role, than visuals in our everyday lives. But we pay it little attention until it starts to irritate us. We don’t notice the clacking of the keyboard as we type the birds outside the window until work starts on our road. We don’t notice the pittering clangs of coffee cups and the bossa nova the waitress chose to play in the café until someone’s baby starts to cry.
Naturally, working from home has made us more attuned to our soundscapes – be it our partner loudly scrolling through TikTok and laughing to themself on the sofa opposite or even the mundane noises a kettle or dishwasher make as we try to meet a crucial deadline.
The auditory cortex has different neural networks for silence and noise, so yo-yoing between two different types of interruptions doesn’t allow our brains to settle and relax. Even more worrisome, a study out of the University of California found “it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.” But anything different from your habits is hard to get used to, especially if you’ve always worked in the white noise a larger office provides.
Physiologically and psychologically, we’re good at tuning out steady state things. What is often the case in shared workspace environments is that the background noise of people and machinery creates a steady wash. At home, it’s objectively more quiet but you notice the sound of the wind chimes or the creaking of your neighbour’s door.
Sound is crucial to our focus as creative freelancers and it’s the lack of continuity of sound that can command the most attention and thus be a bigger distraction. Why is our focus being tested so much more at home? Well, the sound architecture of our domestic environments is designed for living, not concentrating. If you’re planning on working remotely for the foreseeable future, you may want to make some adaptations to your home. One key to remember, especially when sharing office or home space with others, is that not everyone shares the same reaction to different ambient noises. What can be soothing for one person can be distracting for another, so it’s worth doing your research to see how best to design the soundscape of our workspace.
All of these design elements can affect your ability to concentrate because ambient noise not only increases stress levels in the brain, but according to Scientific American, “continued exposure does not lead to habituation; in fact, the effects worsen.” That ongoing, worsening level of stress can decrease higher brain function, as well as impair learning and memory, meaning the deep work you need to do only gets harder when your sonic environment is out of whack.
Some sounds can certainly help to get you into a flow state, though. There are white noise machines, and whirring fans. Having something to concentrate on, like an ambient playlist, can help get you in the zone, and music has the added effect of masking some of the sonic pollution in your home space. One site that sprung up during Sweden’s lockdown, Sound of Colleagues, simulates keyboards, printers, coffee machines, ringing phones, even an office dog, resulting in the feeling of being in a shared space once more.
A lot of other individual factors have contributed to the sonic inequality of remote and hybrid work. Some people have kids; Some have multiple household video chats going on at once; Others live by the motorway. Working from home opens you up to all the systemic issues baked into the foundation of where you live, as opposed to the office’s more equal playing field—a reminder of the blurred lines between life and work at the home office. No single employer can address and fix all these issues, it’s true. But targeted changes can demonstrate an understanding of the impact that sound has on work lives. Policies like designated quiet times where people can assume they won’t be contacted at all can make a world of difference, because it’s not just about noise—it’s about sound equating to availability.
Office noise—at home or shared—will always be there; It’s how we react to it that can make all the difference. While sight is intellectually processed, sound is processed more emotionally.
One way to take charge of your sonic environment is to determine which sonic hue works for you. You’ve surely heard of white noise—that’s equal, steady distribution across all audible frequencies. This shows up in sounds like a whirring fan, or television static, which can be enough to mask loud, bothersome sounds.
White noise seems to be a catchall for background noise in general, but pink noise, which is unequally distributed sound that focuses intensity on lower frequencies, might be what you’re looking for. Pink noise, named for the pink appearance of light in this power spectrum, shows up a lot in natural sounds like rustling leaves, heartbeats, or heavy rain. There’s also the deeper brown noise, if you like sounds like rolling thunder or waterfalls. All of these types of noises stimulate the brain and distract from the sonic microaggressions that can take you out of focus.
If you want to make physical changes to your space to help with noise, adding soft items like pillows, or working in a room with a couch actually makes a big difference to deadening the sound. Using noise cancelling headphones without listening through them is also good in small doses. Sound experts suggest giving yourself at least a silent half hour a day to help reduce your sound stress. Don’t do the thing where people stick egg boxes to walls though – it’s never that desperate (if you’re a musician or have ever seen the show People Just Do Nothing you’ll understand the reference)!
Because sound isn’t something we think about enough in relation to work, or really at all, creating a more comfortable, productive environment for yourself requires practice. It’s more about training your attention. We’re used to passively experiencing the sound world instead of actively analysing it. Working remotely has forced us to analyse our soundscape and perhaps, from a mental health and attention span perspective, this is for the better.
Illustration by Enisaurus