What are the Effects of White Noise in the Workplace?
Let me tell you, it feels kind of bad, being old enough to remember a time where white noise was something you associated with a broken TV. Or, at the very least, with signal problems.
That static-y and annoying sound, accompanied by what my mother used to call the “Very poorly made snow show” was never a welcome sight. Especially on those few rare occasions when it happened during my favorite shows or Monday night football.
Nowadays, white noise has been relegated to the meaning of background noise, whether it’s good or bad. Because, let’s be honest, depending on what kind of person you are, it can be very good or bad.
Some people, me not included, can work quite well with background noise. The sounds of people bustling about around you and generally being active is comforting and even helps you focus.
On the other hand, I can tell you from personal experience that it can be a major detriment, too. I’ve written about this exact thing and gone into more detail there.
Suffice to say, work flows better when I’m not drowning in noise. Why is that?
Apparently, because unlike some people, I come from ancestors that thrived in quiet areas. It’s basically a caveman thing.
If you come from ancestors that feared the silence due to predators, total silence unnerves you, making you jumpy and even jittery. On the other hand, if your predators were loud, then silence is a comfort and makes it easier for you to focus.
Let’s explore some upsides and downsides of white noise and what to do to get the most out of either option.
The Positive Effects of White Noise in the Workplace
Some of the general benefits tend to include:
Let’s explore how it accomplishes all these things and if they apply to you and your workplace.
1. A sense of belonging
We live in a world rife with possibilities. It’s so gigantic and interconnected that you’ve surely had instances in your life where you’ve interacted with and indulged in some part of many cultures, all in the same day.
Driving your German car to a French restaurant and watching a British movie afterward is just a mildly illustrative example. However, most forget that it's quite easy to lose yourself in this sort of setup when it comes to a corporate setting.
Many companies are multinational and gigantic. You can end up working in a building with thousands of other people and feeling quite alone.
That’s because you end up feeling like an unimportant cog, a lifeless and unfeeling puppet to be used and discarded. It’s a bleak thought many of us have had and prefer not to acknowledge, but it’s there.
White noise, in its purest form, helps to combat this. You feel connected to the people around you, surrounded by life.
It feels less like you’re isolated and more like you’re in the middle of something grand. A part of a larger whole, yes, but a part that matters.
This is because, at the end of the day, we’re all social creatures. That’s how we evolved and that’s why white noise often comforts us, with its very presence.
2. More Creativity
There have been studies on the effects of white noise on people's work. Due to those studies, versatile machines have been made, to take advantage of some of these benefits.
Essentially, due to these tendencies of ours to work better when we feel we’re part of a group, lots of creative actions are better with white noise. Up to a certain point, of course.
This is best demonstrated in how noises up to a certain level of loudness help people come up with new, fresh ideas. It’s like floodgates have been opened and the ideas come pouring out in a wave of inspiration.
There’s even proof that too little noise can negatively impact our ability to produce new, good ideas. It’s like the very silence itself drags that ability down.
3. A beat to work to
Now, let’s face it, even the most fun job on the planet can get monotonous at times. I love being a mother, it’s a job I do with joy in my heart.
Even then, it can sometimes get boring and repetitive to do the same tasks and chores, day in and day out. Keep in mind, this is me taking care of people I adore and would do anything for.
Now think on your own job, on the daily grind of it. When it gets too samey, you inevitably end up being less productive.
Studies have shown that white noise if it's soothing and has a consistent flow, can actually help combat this. You end up focusing on that rhythm and going along with it, to help you go through the motions.
It even works better than music, because music often has too much variation, causing you to get sidetracked. Lyrics also contribute a lot to this.
4. The battle against fatigue
We’ve all been there:
- You haven’t had enough sleep, but have to go into work tomorrow.
- You haven't had a chance to rest properly but must soldier on.
- You’ve been worn down by something difficult, but the job keeps demanding more.
White noise, believe it or not, prevents all of these, to some degree. Even the most resistant people benefit from it, in one shape or another.
General white noise, the everyday type, tends to keep you sharper and more focused because others are nearby. Your instincts are screaming at you to not show the worst but the best side of you.
After all, who hasn’t wanted to seem like the best worker, at some point in their life?
When it comes to more engineered, targeted white noise, things get trickier. In essence, it can slightly hijack your biorhythm.
It then imposes another, more vigorous one to replace it, leaving you with a faked but still very useful sensation of being more relaxed and rested than you truly are.
The Negative Effects of white noise in the Workplace
There are only really two major downsides that have been proven to be linked to white noise:
In both cases, I’ve talked about a very elegant possible solution before.
1. When People Talk
You know how you reflexively try to piece together what people are saying when you hear snippets of the conversation? It's a very valid social trait we've inherited and it shows even today.
Being talked to directly is actually less taxing on our attention span than this indirect way of hearing things. Your brain strains harder to fit puzzle pieces together, whether you want it to or not.
2. Personal Anxiety
It can manifest in multiple ways:
- Nervousness over your responsibilities.
- Fear of letting others down
- The panic at failing
The white noise of others around you can often make you think too much on your own work. On how it compares to the work of others.
If you have hefty responsibilities, it can be downright crippling. That’s why the corner office even became a thing, originally.
A degree of separation was seen as a must, for the mental health of the person inside.
You can even be anxious due to engineered white noise. It makes you far too aware of your own imperfect actions and that causes a slow-burning but inevitable spiral.
This applies largely to extreme cases, but it’s been documented.
Conclusion: On the Effects of White Noise in the Workplace
White noise isn’t easy to classify as just good or bad. It’s something relatively new in our understanding.
As such, all I can offer you is the following advice: Don’t discount it, but be wary of using it.
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