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What does concentration sound like?

Jul 8, 2021|

As more and more businesses move to a hybrid-working model, lots of employees cite better concentration as their reason for preferring to work in one location to another.

Lots of different things can affect how easy people find it to concentrate and, subsequently be productive. From essentials like lighting and temperature, to comfort-related factors like making sure a workplace is set up at the right height or distance, and even certain more mood-influencing elements, like the colour, layout, and design of a space. With hybrid working growing in popularity, the office is becoming a space to spark creativity and encourage communication and collaboration between colleagues. It's important, now more than ever, to have a quiet space for focus tasks or to take 5 away from the hustle and bustle of a busy office environment.

But one fundamental factor in influencing concentration, which quite often we find falls outside of our control, is noise. People respond differently to noise, and to different types of noises themselves – which makes it difficult for an employer to make sure that a workspace is set up to give everyone the best chance of being able to concentrate.

Let’s look at how noise affects concentration, and what you can do to minimise the impact of noise on your team’s happiness and productivity.

How does noise affect concentration?

It’s a well-known fact that people react differently to noise. Some people prefer to work in absolute silence, and can lose concentration at the slightest sound, whereas others can happily – and sometimes prefer to – carry out tasks with ambient background noise.

Whether the noise is a television or radio in the background, the sound of other people talking, or even the whirring of a fan, your employees are likely to respond very differently – and that’s rooted in the scientific differences in brain response, depending on people’s personality.

A recent study found that introverts generally find it very difficult to focus with background noise, with music or office noise making them feel ‘annoyed’ and ‘pressured’. They prefer studying, working, and carrying out concentration-intense tasks in absolute silence, with no interruptions to distract them. Extroverts, however, are much less affected by noise, and some even complain when an environment is ‘too quiet’, finding it useful to have background noise to ‘help them concentrate’ – putting in headphones to listen to music, and zone into the task, for example. Noise matters less to them; they can function well with or without it.

The type of background noise also has a significant effect on people’s concentration – regardless of personality. Research suggests that syncopation (the speed or beat of noise) is what makes it noticeable, distracting, or aggravating. Low level background or ‘white’ noise, like a washing machine or air conditioner, is unlikely to interrupt concentration – and can actually be comforting.

On the other hand, unpredictable or unsteady sounds and tempos, like a loud bang, intermittent traffic sounds, or someone talking loudly on the phone, can interrupt the brain, breaking the rhythm of concentration and distracting the person from the task at hand.

How can employers tackle noise?

Given the extremely varied way that people react to noise – essentially finding it either an aid or impediment to concentration – there’s no one-size fits all approach for employers to take to help minimise the detrimental impact of noise. It’s hard to please everyone.

But, that’s why creating flexibility and a variety options is absolutely key to helping your colleagues concentrate, making them happier and, ultimately, more productive.

Zone your space

Giving people choice over what noises they hear can really help them feel in control. Where possible, allow your colleagues to choose where they work – and create different zones for different preferences.

Develop a quiet or focus zone, with desks or areas that are out of the way from the main hustle and bustle, and that have strict rules – don’t approach me, and don’t talk to me. It might seem harsh, but having a clear understanding of what behaviour is appropriate in what space is a straightforward and easy way to make sure that people are working in the environment that suits them best – and ultimately helps them concentrate.

It works in reverse, too. Think about creating collaboration hubs that are designed for lively, creative discussion and conversation, to get ideas flowing and allow people to bounce back and forth off one another. Make sure there’s seating nearby so that there’s an opportunity for those who prefer being near background conversation to take a seat, listen to the chatter, and get to work.

Similarly, making sure there’s a dedicated space for people to break out and relax – have lunch, chat to one another, or even just make a cup of tea – can really help. It creates a natural gathering hub (away from desks where people may be trying to concentrate) and acts as a designated space for more boisterous conversation and collaboration.

Just make sure that there’s enough distance between them that both types of space are able to fulfil their purpose!

Invest in infrastructure

The best way to zone your space effectively is to invest in office infrastructure that allows you to do so. There are lots of pieces of furniture that make it easy for you to adapt and reconfigure the space you’ve got quicky and easily, so that you can change the purpose as you need. We refer to our Quarters range, for example, as a flexible family of sheltered working spaces. They’re booths that are carefully crafted for quiet – with sound dampening panels meaning they offer a quiet workstation or private place to take a call, but can also be used as a cosy, comfortable meeting space between a few colleagues. Bringing a sense of calm to the office environment, Quarters creates your very own haven away from the hubbub buzz of the busy workplace, perfect for taking 5.

Similarly, Vetrospace booths are completely soundproof phone spaces and office pods, with triple layer glass and EcoFelt. Installing a couple of options like these as a place for people to take phone calls, have private conversations, or lock themselves away in silence to complete a concentration-intense task could help give your employees options when it comes to alleviating noise distraction.

Hybrid working

Finally, as much as you can prepare your office to be optimal for both quiet concentration and creative collaboration, allowing your colleagues the flexibility to choose where they work, where possible, is a great idea. Hybrid working means they can optimise their time – setting themselves up somewhere without any noise distractions if need be, or recognising they need the background hustle and bustle of a coffee shop to really get creative.

Because noise impacts concentration so differently, depending on the person, the more flexibility you can give, the better.

A small, but effective, place to start is making sure, unless there are sound business reasons for doing so, that you don’t have any policies in place that are likely to hinder your employees in their attempts to stop noise distracting them. If you’re still a very office-based organisation, and people want to wear headphones – either noise-cancelling to drown everything else out, or to listen to music quietly – try and give them the freedom to do so.

Ask your employees how they find current noise levels in the office, and how they think the space could be used, and take their views on board where you can. By listening to their preferences, and offering as much flexibility as possible, you’ll help to mitigate noise distractions – helping to keep your team happy, productive, and able to concentrate at work.

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