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Could Ambient Noise Actually Improve Productivity?

In an age when coffee shops have become the new standard workplace for remote workers, it was only a matter of time before someone studied the effect it has on people’s productivity. Some people swear that working with a little background noise helps them to focus, whereas others say that they could never get anything done if they tried to work remotely from their local java joint.



It’s tough to work off of conflicting anecdotal evidence when thinking about how to set-up a working environment for yourself and your team. Studies like the one conducted by two researchers from the University of British Columbia and a researcher from the University of Virginia show that there is strong evidence that supports the idea that moderate levels of background or ambient noise actually boost creativity and improve productivity. In addition to being interesting, this factoid could come in handy when planning how to set up your workspace.




A Little Background Noise Might Help Get The Creative Juices Flowing

The study, which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research, found (through various experiments) that noise acts as a distraction at all audible decibel levels, but that a “moderate” amount of background noise, like that in a low key coffee house produces a level of distraction that could stimulate parts of the brain associated with creativity. The study showed that a  person’s ability to process information decreases as background noise increases, but statistical analysis revealed that as processing ability decreased, abstract thinking actually increased. The data set took on a bit of a “U-shape” and showed that background noise (at approximately 70 decibels) appeared to be the level of noise that impacted processing ability the least while still stimulating abstract thinking in a notable and positive way. The take-away from all that nerd talk is that the research team found a noise level that even Goldilocks would say was “just right” for getting work done.


The Study’s Practical Application

So the short answer to whether or not you should incorporate a coffee-house-like feel to your working environment is, well… it depends on the kind of work you and your team need to do.  The merits of having an open office setting with audible conversation and music in the background might be questionable for… say the accounting and finance department, but could have a really positive effect on parts of the team that needs to tap into their creativity in a more concrete way like the folks in marketing or programming.




A Little Independence Goes A Long Way

And by a little I mean 20%. Apparently that’s the percentage of “work time” the folks at Google decided to allot to their employees to do whatever they wanted (as long as what they wanted to do was legal). ABC News reported that Google attributed multiple major breakthroughs to the practice of giving their employees time to do things other than “work” while physically “at work”. A project manager postulated that if an employee is really interested and invested in the project at hand, they will think about it while doing other things in their free time, and the ideas that come to them while doing other things, like say playing pool or talking to a friend, have potential to being really innovative.


While hard to bank on, these examples illustrate the potential investing in employee autonomy and flexible work conditions can have in fostering creativity and getting results. There is (of course) a context for each of the models proposed, but at the very least they should serve as food for thought, especially for people who have team members working remotely from some Java hut in Indonesia.


Photo Credits

Digitalart | Sura Nualpradid | Adamr |

Author : Adam Corl

Adam Corl is a New England native with a passion for sarcasm, wine that tastes expensive, and keeping his parents questioning his life choices. This combined with a keen interest in organizational behavior and social science research has lead him to fund his nomadic lifestyle through freelance writing and research endeavors. When he is not writing about bootstrapping magic and project management tools you can find his stuff at The Bubble, where he is a staff writer.

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