Sound Design in the New Workplace

IRI Podcast episode on Work Sound

Much has been made about the many ways our workplaces are changing in the wake of the last few years – from doing away with open plans to “hot desking” to embracing multi-functional work areas, it’s clear that our work spaces are evolving…but what about our work sounds? Today, we talk with Alex Coutts, the Senior Vice President and Head of Experience at Made Music Studio. Here, he explains:

  • The impact sounds can have on people in the workplace;
  • How curating the sound of your workplace can help you achieve work goals;
  • Why biophilic sounds can help reduce workplace stress and anxiety; and
  • How sound design can welcome and attract hybrid workers back into the office!

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Work Sound - A New Concept?

  • Sound is often a design principle that is an afterthought in workplaces.
  • Sound fills our lives daily and is an integral part of how we function as human beings, so sound should also play a role at work.
  • Things as minor and simple as “beeps, bloops, and dings” can have an effect on us, especially while working.
  • On average people spend eight to twelve hours at their workplace per day, so work sound and workplace acoustics should be thought of and implemented strategically.


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The Research Behind Work Sound

  • Mr. Coutts and his company Made Music Studio set out on a journey to really get a sense of how sound can impact a person subconsciously within a single place they spend so much time in.
  • Sound and music in particular are often a part of a person’s identity, and it can actually allow conscious biases to arrive when discussed directly.
    • Mr. Coutts' research strived to tap into the subconscious impact work sounds have on people in different kinds of workspaces.
  • With open-office designs becoming more and more prevalent today, ambient noise within the workplace can have emotional, physiological, and psychological effects.
  • Two different settings were tested - the typical office environment (cubicles, desks, meeting rooms, etc.), and a work environment that was thoughtfully designed for work sound.
    • In both environments, employees were polled on how the sounds they hear affect things like motivation, productivity, and relaxation.
    • While the setting is important, so is the sound itself. Different compositions of sound and music were tested to see what kind of effect each one has on employees during their workday. 
  • Mr. Coutts and the team at Made Music Studio were able to find certain work sounds that were actually able to improve the moods of employees, increase productivity, and create a more relaxed and comfortable state within the workplace. 

Workplace Sound Design

  • Similar to how adding physical objects to a space affects the overall visual feel of a space, audio and sound can affect the overall auditory feel of a space.
  • It is key to identify what ambient sounds naturally and consistently occur within a workplace first so that from there, the most effective additions/subtractions to the auditory mix can be implemented.
  • Designing a workplace that thoughtfully and effectively utilizes sound consists of more than just the general design of the space. 
  • The actual sounds and music being played can create different feelings around the space and can affect employees located in different areas within the workspace in different ways. 
  • Work sounds that are used to help employees focus should be specifically curated to limit distractions, so something like a Beyonce song probably isn't the best choice for music in the workplace.
    • Biophilic sounds are sounds that have been proven to help people relax, ease anxiety, and focus. These sounds mixed in with music elements can help people to be more productive and happy at work while simultaneously reducing stress and anxiety that often comes natural with any job. 
  • It is important that any and all intentional work sound is consumed in an ambient manner. The sounds should work to trigger subconscious reactions.
    • The right ambient sounds will provide employees an emotional driver throughout the day that will help them do their best work. 

Sound’s Role in the Remote Work vs. Office Work Debate

  • There are numerous reasons why people today choose whether or not they prefer working from home, from the office, on the road, or even in a hybrid situation, and sound can be one of them.
  • For people who work outside of the office, it can be difficult for people to create the blank canvas of work sound whereas within the office, that sound can be curated specifically to the type of work being completed there.
    • Similar to how certain people need specific auditory stimulation in order to sleep, the specific work sounds a person hears while working can have a great impact on their level of focus and productivity.

Sound in the Background

  • Architects work to build physical spaces that suit the needs and desires of people as a whole and in different spaces throughout the building. The same can be done for work sound.
  • Communal areas like entryways, lobbies, and even hallways and conference/meeting areas have the ability to suit fun and loose sound design. As opposed to the biophilic sounds and music that induce focus and stress relief, the sounds in these areas allow people to let loose and enjoy the other people they share the space with. This can help create an emotional connection to the workplace and the company they work for.
    • Communal areas can work in conjunction with the areas of the workplace that utilize productivity sound design, to create the ideal space where employees can both have fun and accomplish their goals symbiotically.
  • Work sound within entries can even serve to ease anxiety for people wary of coming back into the physical workplace following the pandemic.

Curating Work Sound for Accomplishing Work Goals

  • It has been proven that different sounds and different tempos/cadences of sound can help people to focus or relax and these types of sound should be utilized accordingly within the workplace. 
    • For a mood like focus, there has been extensive research into the effectiveness of beat entrainment, which is the practice of playing a specific tempo and rhythm and gradually slowing that tempo and rhythm down over time. This has been proven to calm and center a person as they work.
  • Biophilic and nature-based sounds are also proven to help calm the mind and these types of sound are effectively utilized in an open-office setting.
  • Musical gestures and expressions are more appropriate and effective in communal areas as previously mentioned and can help form that emotional connection to the workplace.
  • Effective work sound design can also play a huge role in collaboration efforts. 
    • With hybrid workforces becoming so prevalent and popular, it is important that people feel collaborative and motivated whenever they are in the workplace, working with others. 
    • Sound can help to both prepare and stimulate employee’s minds for collaboration and making the most of their time within the office. 
  • Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between your subconscious reaction to sound and your desire to return to that place/experience.

Devising a Work Sound Design for Your Workspace

  • The perfect place to start when beginning to sonically design a workplace is identifying those natural ambient noises that occur consistently.
    • Identifying these sounds can help to build the “auditory story” of a space and will get you started on where to begin your work sound design.
  • Understand how your space is designed physically and determine which areas are going to be used for certain purposes like collaboration, focus, productivity, etc.
  • In order to hear the implemented work sounds, some infrastructure like speakers will also be needed, so it is important to find areas within the workspace that are amenable to speakers and more specifically, what kind of speakers and what volume should they operate at for that specific area.
  • Ensure that the entire workforce has input on what they do and don’t like sonically within the workplace in order to create the perfect mix of work sound. 
    • Different departments, different individuals, and different workstyles should all provide feedback on what they think would work best in their respective space and within the workspace as a whole. 

Implementing New Work Sound

  • Similar to most any new practice being thrown into action within the workplace, new work sounds and sound design will need to go through multiple review processes before it is perfected for the specific space it is being deployed in. 
  • Make sure that employees are consistently being asked for their feedback on the sound design changes and update the sound design as necessary. 
    • It is not uncommon for the perfect mix of work sound to take months or even years to identify, but it can and will also evolve over time based on current events, organizational goals and direction, along with turnover within the organization.

Made Music Studio

  • Made Music Studio’s mission is to help organizations craft work sound designs that allow for higher levels of productivity, reduce stress for employees, and create a workplace that generates a high level of morale.
  • The company has been around for nearly 25 years and began as a sound design company focused on the screen (film, television, documentaries, etc.), but has since expanded their capabilities and expertise into a whole slew of other industries.
  • They focus on how sound can affect not only physical work environments, but also marketing and advertising of products and services. 
  • Currently, they are placing a major focus on sound design within emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, ride sharing environments, robotics, and much more.

Alex Coutts Background

  • Attended Boston University
  • Previous roles include companies like Sony Pictures and Verizon
  • Mr. Coutts has been with Made Music Studio for almost six years, now serving as the Senior Vice President, Head of Experience.



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