Since the invention of the open office plan, employees have been battling unwanted sound interruptions and office banter distracting them from doing their jobs. In fact, research highlighted in Harvard Business Review has found a lack of sound privacy is the number one thing employees list as a productivity killer —ranking higher than air quality, freezing temperatures, bad building hygiene, and cramped workspaces.
If unwanted noise is killing our focus, is the solution to work in total silence? New research has found that the answer is no, we don’t work best in complete silence, either.
Study: The perfect background noise is not too silent, not too loud
A study in the Journal of Consumer Research applied the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” to ambient noise levels, and asked a group of participants completing creative thinking tests which level of ambient noise in the background was too much, too little, and just right. What they found was the group working in 70-decibel levels of noise, a sound condition that’s equivalent to the chatter in a café or your television set at a normal level, significantly outperformed the total silence and high levels of noise group. The moderate-noise group generated ideas that were more creative than those in the total silence group or the group that was hearing noise as loud as jackhammers.
Researchers suggested that moderate noise is superior for creative thinking because it’s the noise level most likely to spark the abstract processing in our brains, which can bring out our inner Picasso. Meanwhile, too much background noise will reduce how much information can get processed in brains distracted by the sound of jackhammers.
Not all noise is equal
“Our findings imply that instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment (such as a café) may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas,” the study concludes.
Not all sound is noise, in other words.
A separate study backed up why a person talking in the background of your the TV can help your creativity while a person talking to you face-to-face can distract you. In a study testing how our brain waves respond to sound, the researchers found that some levels of white noise helped participants’ creative scores while face-to-face interactions hurt creative scores.
This study’s conclusion suggests that the source of noise is a determining factor of when sound becomes distracting noise. We may feel compelled to listen more closely to the office chatter of our colleagues than the background chatter in cafés or television sets. You can tune out a talking head on TV, but you can’t tune out what your cubicle seatmate is saying about company gossip right next to you.
So next time you want to think up your next big idea, it may be time to head outside of the office filled with distracting humans and into a café filled with noisy humans who blessedly don’t work with you. It’s one scenario where noisy chatter can give you peace of mind.