Sound At Work: Research Studies On Office Acoustics

When office noise levels do not align with preferences and
expectations, negative moods can result and stress can build.
Both negative moods and stress have been tied to degraded
professional performance and interactions with others. Although
professional acousticians are regularly hired to optimize the
soundscapes of office workplaces, this resource is for interior
designers to keep up with relevant research studies to apply
in their broader practices. At-work sound-related experiences
are often a hot topic for discussion, particularly among office
users who are a little—or a lot—“concerned” about this aspect
of workplace design.

Surfaces which absorb sound can diminish the strength of
the sound from people and equipment. Specific solutions
include acoustic ceiling tiles, carpeting, furniture finishes,
curtains, and other ceiling treatments.
Sound barriers are used to interrupt paths that carry
sound from the noise source to the receiver. The simplest
strategy is to put noise-generating sources inside a
fully enclosed room designed to contain the sound – i.e.
conference rooms. A reverse approach is “the inverse
office” where noisy activities are in the open workspace
and quiet areas are within the walled spaces.
A sound masking system supplies additional sound,
either through “white noise” or background noise such
as mechanical equipment, to counteract the typical
quietness of an open workspace and to help cancel
the sound disturbance emanating from the sender.
*Adapted from “Sound Matters: How to achieve acoustic comfort in the
contemporary office.” By GSA Public Buildings Service, December 2011
A summary of each relevant scholarly research study reviewed on this topic is included in this
section, with a full citation of the source for additional reference.
Oseland, N. & Hodsman, P. (2015). A psychological approach to resolving office noise
Saint-Gobain Ecophon
One of the most important things to know about our responses to sounds in offices is that they
may not be entirely objective. Oseland and Hodsman very effectively integrate research findings
related to the
psychological experience of noise
in workplaces in their 2015 report on this
topic. They state that “Noise is one of the top causes of dissatisfaction and loss of productivity
in the workplace…. In offices,
noise can result in annoyance, heightened stress levels and
reduced performance
….. the term ‘noise’ (unwanted sound) is subjective and based on a range
of factors including a person’s evaluation of the necessity of the noise, the meaning attached to
the sound, whether it can be controlled, and the context (e.g. if it is normal and expected for the
place where the sound is generated). Reported noise annoyance does correlate with sound level
measurement, but it is generally accepted that the sound level accounts for only 25 percent of
the variance in annoyance…. there are four key non-physical factors that affect noise perception
and performance in office environments:
• Task and work activity,
• Context and attitude,
• Perceived control and predictability,
• Personality and mood.”
Kozusznik, M., Peiro, J., Soriano, A., & Escudero, M. (2018). ‘Out of sight, out of mind?’
The role of physical stressors, cognitive appraisal, and positive emotions in employees’
Environment and Behavior, 50
(1), 86-115.
A study conducted by Kozusznik, Peiro, Soriano, and Escudero (2018) confirms how important
it is to collect information from the people who will use a space during the design process. The
Kozusznik-lead group determined that “the appraisal of environmental stressors mediates the
relationship between physical office characteristics and health symptoms…. positive emotions
moderate the relationship between the sound level and the appraisal of noise, supporting
the fact that
emotions can have an impact on people’s appraisals
.” So, appraisals of sounds
influence employee health and these assessments are influenced by mood. The Kozusznik
group concludes that “office designers should:
• use noise-reducing materials;
• plan noise management through office designs that use spaces for high-concentration work,
teamwork, or attending to clients; and
• improve the office design to enhance positive emotions.
Office environmental factors can foster positive emotions by offering employees unique
architectural features that
promote a sense of control
over their physical environment….
perception of control is an important resource that may help employees to deal with
environmental demands.”
Veitch, J. (2018). How and why to assess workplace design: Facility management supports
human resources.
Organizational Dynamics, 47
, 78-87.
Veitch (2018) does the heavy lifting of quantifying
preferred sound volumes in offices
. After a
very thorough review of published research findings, Veitch states that “As the amount of space
provided to individual workstations or offices drops, people are necessarily closer together.
Sound travels more readily from one to another, increasing the potential for distraction and
reduced concentration. Even in today’s team-based, collaborative organizations, most people
spend most of their time in individual, heads-down work. Employees may need less space to
store materials in the age of electronic document-sharing and archiving, but the need for a
quiet place to think is less different than many assume…. in general people prefer…
sound levels (not higher than 45dB(A))
Seddigh, A., Berntson, E., Jonsson, F., Bodin, Danielson, C., & Westerlund, H. (2015).
The effect of noise absorption variation in open-plan offices: A field study with a
cross-over design.
Journal of Environmental Psychology, 44
, 34-44.
Seddigh, Berntson, Jonsson, Bodin Danielson, and Westerlund (2015) studied how the use of
sound absorbing materials
can influence what it’s like to work in an open office. They share
that “Noise has repeatedly been shown to be one of the most recurrent reasons for complaints
in open-plan office environments…. Employees working on two different floors of an office
building were followed as three manipulations were made in room acoustics on each of the
two floors by means of less or more absorbing tiles and wall absorbents…. within each floor
enhanced acoustical conditions were associated with
lower perceived disturbances and
cognitive stress
…. The results furthermore suggest that even a small deterioration in acoustical
room properties measured according to the new ISO-standard for open-plan office acoustics
has a negative impact on self-rated health and disturbances.”
Haapakangas, A., Hongisto, V., Hyona, J., Kokko, J., & Keranen, J. (2014). Effects of
unattended speech on performance and subjective distraction: The role of acoustic
design in open-plan offices.
Applied Acoustics, 86
, 1-16.
Acoustical experiences in open-plan offices were also studied by Haapakangas, Hongisto,
Hyona, Kokko, and Keranen (2014). They determined that overall acoustical planning for an
office may influence noise transmission through the entire space in desirable ways but may
not affect the experience of nearby sound. The team collected data in an open-plan office lab,
and specifically studied “whether the deleterious [harmful] effects of
background speech
can be affected by room acoustic design that decreases speech intelligibility, as measured by
the Speech Transmission Index (STI)…. four acoustic conditions were physically built…. The
speech conditions differed in terms of the
degree of absorption, screen height, desk isolation,
and the level of masking sound
. The speech sounds simulated an environment where
phone conversations are heard from different locations varying in distance….
The presence
of background speech had detrimental effects… on cognitive performance in short-term
memory and working memory tasks
…. The reduction of the STI by room acoustic means
decreased subjective disturbance…. The results imply that reducing the STI is beneficial for
performance and acoustic satisfaction especially regarding speech coming from more
. However, acoustic design does not sufficiently decrease the distraction caused by
speech from
adjacent desks
Browning, B. & Walker, D. (2018). An ear for nature.
Terrapin Bright Green
Browning and Walker (2018) have comprehensively reviewed research on the economic and
psychological implications of office acoustics. They report that “In one study, self-reported time
wasted decreased by more than 55% following the installation of an active acoustic treatment
White or pink noise
—broad-band noise commonly used in conventional sound
masking systems—can
irritate listeners over time and may actually exacerbate stress and
dissatisfaction in the workplace
…. In at least two field experiments… participants rejected
sound-masking systems altogether in favor of unmasked background noise…. When compared
to conventional white noise,
natural soundscapes
have shown to i
ncrease performance on
tasks and improve positive perception of well-being
…. In a study of speech masking and
cognitive performance, water outperformed four other masking sounds for serial recall and
creative thinking…. Water sounds broadcast synchronously with a video of running water
resulted in participants reporting greater restoration, and outperformed all other tested sounds,
even that same water sound without video pairing.”
Gonzalez, M. & Aiello, J. (2019). More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects
cognitive task performance.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
, in press.
Gonzalez and Aiello (2019) studied the consequences of listening to music while working.
They report that they “tested our hypotheses in a laboratory experiment, in which participants
completed cognitive tasks either in silence or with music of varying complexity and volume.
We found that (a) music generally impaired complex task performance, (b) complex music
facilitated simple task performance…. A key finding from our research is that
music can
facilitate simple task performance and hinder complex task performance
Haapakangas, A., Hongisto, V., Varjo, J., & Lantinen, M. (2018). Benefits of quiet
workspaces in open-plan offices – Evidence from two office relocations.
of Environmental Psychology, 56
, 63-75.
Haapakangas, Hongisto, Varjo, and Lantinen (2018) specifically evaluated the implications
of providing
quiet spaces in work environments
. They studied the experiences of two
organizations transitioning from “from private offices to open-plan offices that differed in the
number and variety of quiet rooms. Survey data was gathered once before… and once after the
office relocation…. Perceived distractions increased in both organizations after the relocation.
negative effects on environmental satisfaction, perceived collaboration and stress
only emerged in the open-plan office where the number of quiet rooms was low
…. Quiet
workspaces, and the perceived ease of access to them, are associated with environmental
perceptions, perceived collaboration and employee stress in open-plan offices.”
Acun, V. & Yilmazer, S. (2018). A grounded theory approach to investigate the
perceived soundscape of open-plan offices.”
Applied Acoustics, 131
, 28-37.
Sounds that are unexpected
can have particularly negative effects on user experiences of
spaces, and places that are too quiet can be as challenging as those that are seen as loud
(Acun and Yilmazer, 2018) – all of which indicates how important it is to learn from the people
who will use a space what sorts of sounds they anticipate hearing. Acun and Yilmazer found
via research with users in an open-plan off space that “Sounds that were not expected or out
of context and those that interfere with the concentration demanding tasks caused a negative
interpretation of the soundscape….
employees were concerned with silence as much as they
were concerned with the noise
Burkus. D. (2017). Why you can focus in a coffee shop but not in your open office.”
Harvard Business Review
Burkus (2017), after a review of research in the peer-reviewed press, also concludes that some
background sound in offices is not only inevitable but can positively affect user experience:
“some level of office banter in the background might actually benefit our ability to do creative
tasks, provided we don’t get drawn into the conversation. Instead of total silence,
the ideal
work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise
…. in our offices, we
can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted
while we’re trying to focus…. By contrast, a coworking space or a coffee shop provides
a certain
level of ambient noise while also providing freedom from interruptions
…. Taken together, the
lesson here is that the ideal space for focused work is not about freedom from noise, but about
freedom from interruption. Finding a space you can hide away in, regardless of how noisy it is,
may be the best strategy for making sure you get the important work done.”
Workplace acoustics are a well-researched but complicated topic. Study findings
overall indicate how important it is to conduct research with users to effectively
evaluate the ultimate effects of acoustical conditions on performance and well-being.
ASID Research Topic Summary reports consolidate recent scholarly research papers
relevant to a specific topic with the purpose of identifying key design considerations
based on research evidence. In addition to the synthesis of research findings,
we’ve included summaries of each research study referenced to provide a general
overview. For more information on the details of each study, please use the citations
to access full articles.
, is a practicing environmental psychologist and a principal at Design
with Science. She has extensive experience integrating science-based insights to develop
recommendations for the design of places, objects, and services that support desired cognitive,
emotional, and physical outcomes/experiences. Her clients include design firms, manufacturers,
and service providers worldwide.
Dr. Augustin has talked about using design to enhance human performance and psychological
well-being on mass-market national television and radio programs in the United States and
in Europe as well as on and She speaks frequently to audiences in North
America, Europe, and Asia at events such as WorkTech, the International Design & Emotion
Conference, the bi-annual meeting of the Association of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA),
NeoCon/IIDEX, the APA’s annual meeting, the EDRA annual conference, Living-Futures, and
Applied Brilliance.
Dr. Augustin is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, holds leadership positions
in professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the
Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). She is the author of
Place Advantage:
Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture
(Wiley, 2009) and, with Cindy Coleman,
Designer’s Guide to Doing Research: Applying Knowledge to Inform Design
(Wiley, 2012). Sally’s
work has been discussed in publications such as
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal
The Guardian
, and
Psychology Today
Dr. Augustin is a graduate of Wellesley College (BA in economics), Northwestern University
(MBA, majors in finance and marketing), and Claremont Graduate University (Ph.D., psychology).
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