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How “Noise-scapes” Are Affecting Us

Jan 3, 2014 2:27 PM, By Justin O’Connor, Product Manager, Audio, Biamp Systems

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Chances are you are reading this article in a noisy environment. You may be aware of the noise level, or you can push the noise into the background—for the most part. There is also a very good chance that this noise is impairing your productivity, negatively impacting your normally pleasant disposition, and even eroding time off your lifespan.

Study after study has revealed that today’s omnipresent “noise-scapes” are negatively affecting worker satisfaction, classroom learning, and healthcare effectiveness, leading architects, interior designers, and engineers to rethink the sound and acoustics behind our vibrant, even beautifully designed surroundings. Take the move of today’s office spaces to a more open floor plan and workflow. Once deemed a cure-all for increasing collaboration, open-plan offices (while beneficial to specific work environments) have been found to actually decrease productivity while contributing to higher stress levels in staff. How is this possible?

First, the distraction of colleague conversations can cause an increase in stress hormone levels as we battle to focus on tasks at hand. These stress levels increase the more mental focus our tasks demand, ultimately affecting concentration and reducing employees’ willingness to collaborate.

Second, a noisy office has also been found to contribute to physical discomfort such as back pain in white-collar workers, bringing on increased absenteeism. To reverse these trends, organizations have begun adopting new “sound” solutions such as sound masking and artificial windows. By reducing the distance at which conversations can be heard, sound-masking technology can reduce employee distractions while increasing the ability to focus. Artificial windows—installations which project natural scenes set to low-level music or nature soundtracks—work by activating the intrinsic sense of wellbeing ingrained within the human psyche, leading to an environment that can become even more productive than areas of total silence.

Within educational settings, it is now understood that excessive noise affects students’ ability to absorb and retain teacher instructions and written information. Room reverberation, which forces teachers and students to speak louder than the echo caused by their voice, is considered the main culprit for decreased comprehension. To transform classrooms, low-cost installations such as wall-mounted boards and ceiling panels can cut reverberation in half, leading to more effective learning environments.

Noise-related issues are equally affecting healthcare institutions where patients exposed to better acoustics have experienced shorter recovery times and requested pain-relief medication on a less frequent basis. More considerate sound designs are also reducing stress levels in medical personnel, resulting in fewer on-the-job mistakes. Besides building health facilities with acoustically optimized designs, healing environments can also leverage IT networks to implement flexible paging solutions. Enabled by the convergence of AV and IT equipment, these new systems can provide both targeted announcements and silent paging to sustain the calm and quiet atmosphere so closely tied to healing.

As noise begins to permeate every aspect of our society, there are several solutions that can be applied to alleviate the strain of busy sound environments. These can also be complemented by the following best practices. First, acoustics should be considered and incorporated into the initial design in order to select sound-absorbing materials and identify potential sources of noise such as ventilation, heating, and electronic equipment. Second, professionals should design soundscape content to create atmospheres that are appropriate, flexible, and compatible with corporate, education, and healthcare settings. Third, audio solutions should deliver quality experiences to individuals who occupy the environment in which they are used, providing an environment that is conducive to productivity, happiness, and optimal health.

Justin O’Connor is the product manager for audio products at Biamp Systems, a leading provider of innovative, networked media systems that power the world's most sophisticated audio/video installations

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