Humming air conditioner, buzzing ceiling lights, keyboard tapping, phone conversations, chatter – the work place is full of sounds that can be both unpleasant and distracting. 

We can't simply shut our ears when we hear an annoying noise, therefor, we must endure it.

As more people than ever are working from large open-plan office spaces, the problem of distractions due to unwanted noise is becoming a common problem. The Guardian reports that people who work in open-plan office spaces took over 70% more sick days than those who worked from home. The same article opens with huge figures stating that of 10,000 people surveyed, 85% of them said that they cannot concentrate in their working environment.


How we cope?

Our brains have evolved to be able to filter out unwanted noise to a certain extent. However, the brain has always needed to listen for sounds that may indicate a threat or danger. This means that our hearing is never turned off – even whilst we sleep, our brains listen.

Instead of turning off our ears, the brain has developed coping mechanisms that are used to filter noise so that we are less overwhelmed by the amount we are bombarded with every hour of every day. If exposed to noise, especially noise we find uncomfortable, it can hinder our work performance in the form of tiredness, annoyance, stress and in some cases illness.

Cover up with SoundShade

SoundShade is a mobile application that helps to deal with distracting noises. The aim of SoundShade is to allow listeners to 'mask' the unwanted noise in their working environment.

The masking is done by giving listeners the choice of a variety of natural and environmental sounds that they find more pleasing, so that the brain does not have to use its own coping mechanisms. In addition, all of the sounds can be easily arranged and combined in a way that it suits the situation and user's mood.

Hand-crafted sounds

The sound content within SoundShade has been designed based on existing research on how:

  • the brain reacts to specific sounds
  • how we react to different frequencies (pitch) found within sounds and
  • the effect it has on our ability to concentrate and perform in working environments.

For example, a study by the University of Nebraska found that people performed worse in performance measuring tests when they were personally annoyed by a specific sound.

It all comes down to how we perceive a sound, and at SoundShade we understand that each and every person is unique in their preferences of what is and isn't annoying. As a result SoundShade comes equipped, currently, with around 30 unique and varying sounds and has more in development right now. This allows a range of customization that we hope will cater to everyone's personal desires when trying to combat distressing noise.

With this introduction, we begin a new Sound Science -blog series – in a hope to shed light on the science behind the noises we hear every day; how they can be distressing for us and how SoundShade is being developed to combat this problem that we endure from day-to-day.

Next time in sound science

The disruptive nature of the open-plan office.

In the mean time, check out the first hand experience of Lindsey Kaufman, who was, along with her colleagues, forced into and open-plan working lifestyle; one of the most disruptive working environments there is, when poorly designed:

"A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies." – Lindsey Kaufhman, The Washington Post.