Should a workplace have a soundtrack?

An experience designer argues why a future of soundscapes in offices could make us more creative and productive.
Sound, camera, action.
Sound, camera, action.
Photo: Christopher Furlong (Getty Images)
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Imagine this: you walk into an office building on the day of a big client meeting. You’re feeling anxious, apprehensive. As you approach the receptionist and check in digitally for your appointment, you see a new option to receive a “personalized bio-soundscape” while you wait. You could use a distraction, so—why not?—you decide to give it a try. As you settle in, you slip on an electronic ring provided by the receptionist, and a soothing sound that seemingly only you can hear begins to envelop your space. You slowly begin to feel more relaxed. Through AI, body sensors in the lobby, biosensors in the ring, and directional speakers, the building has sensed your mood—and has generated an audio-led, hyper-personalized soundtrack to combat your anxiety.

Yet we routinely walk into offices that either sound like mausoleums or city circuses, with silence or a cacophony of sound accompanying us as we make our way about. As a creative myself, I know that’s because many designers think of our visual senses first. But these days, with devices and surroundings in constant competition for your visual attention, I’m interested in auditory experiences. Sound has the incredible power to impact mood, increase productivity and creativity, and decrease stress and anxiety. The future of design for workplaces lies in wielding the power of evocative sound—a sense arguably more powerful than visuals and scent.

The benefits of sound on our work and well-being

Sounds enable us to tap into primordial feelings. According to developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, our limbic cortex (or “lizard brain,” as it’s often called) retains auditory fight or flight. This means that our subconscious automatically perceives certain sounds as scary or comforting because our brains evolved on the unforgiving plains of the Serengeti. Without even realizing it, we’re often at the mercy of how sounds affect our well-being. Especially with the significant, and often justified, resistance to returning to the office, workplaces can benefit from auditory design that evokes not only a feeling of home, but also elevates the office experience above what you might experience at home.

When designing a space, the singular most common directive for designers is to create an experience that evokes not just feelings, but nostalgia—one that helps users tap into a fond memory or place. This could be anything from a chord sequence to footsteps in the snow. A nostalgic-feeling soundscape is highly personal: It transports the listener into a moment in time while subconsciously connecting them to their physical environment. In an office setting, this feeling of comfort and belonging could entice employees to do their work at the office. 

But if companies want to incorporate sound into their workplaces, its employees should be in control

Beyond suggesting a feeling of comfort, sound can also impact productivity, creativity, focus, and well-being. Think, for example, about the inexplicably chilling sound of a black hole, or the effect that a crying child has on a nursing mother. Now think about the almost universally relaxing or inspiring sounds of birds singing or rain on your windowpane. How can we wield this inherent power to help us work better?

The key lies in creating agency for all parties audibly involved, from visitors in brief transit to employees who may be using a space for many hours at a time. When one enters a space, it could react to them, not with the usual static and impersonal background noise on a loop, but instead with a dynamic melody that responds to the human stimulus. Nobody would be forced to hear something. Rather, they’d opt into it because it’s part of their interaction with their surroundings: an auto-generated symphony tailored to them.

Companies brand everything, from mugs and pens to entire building designs. It’s easy to get lost, to feel like a cog in the wheel of a machine much bigger than yourself—and in other words, to feel insignificant. And after the height of covid, companies are increasingly rebranding to be more human-centric, less about a brand and more about striking an emotional connection with the staff walking through the front door. What better way to do that than allowing employees the agency to set the tone for their own day? When they walk into work and the space responds to them, they’re bringing in their own personal footprint. They’re making a mark.

How sound can help workplaces become more creative and productive

Let’s revisit the day of your big presentation. You’re on your way to the conference room, mentally rehearsing your presentation. Through directional speakers and wearable tech, your soundscape begins to play binaural beats, which induce meditative mental brain wave patterns, helping you feel focused, calm, even zen-like.

Or you’re in a creative slump, and you can’t seem to hear yourself think above the sound of overheard conversations, ringing phones, and beeping tech. You want a change of scenery, so you decide to go for a walk around the office. As you walk about, your soundscape incorporates happy music with high emotions and a regular beat to increase creativity and ideation. Your coworker passes by and, for a brief moment of synchronicity, your soundscapes merge—a serendipitous bit of magic peppered into your day.

Say you’re feeling disgruntled about braving your way through wintry weather for an early-morning office meeting. You walk into the building, staring down at your phone as you try to get a jump on emails for the day. Suddenly, the soundscape in the building’s lobby surrounds you with ASMR-like sounds of nature, a decision backed by decades of evidence about the importance of nature sounds to well-being. However you choose to interact with your space, it’s deliberate, and no longer the random cacophony of sound or the lack of it altogether.

The technology already exists in piecemeal throughout different projects. To create a new sound experience at the Charter Communications headquarters in Connecticut, for example, my team at ESI Design crafted pleasant generative harmonies from the digital sounds made by Charter’s products and technology, always shifting and changing based on live data and brand content. These live soundscapes created a deeper sense of being part of the Charter work and ethos in a subtle, effective way. The generative soundscape sets a positive tone for work. It’s the first thing people hear when they enter their office, and the last when going home.

We spend more time at work than any other waking activity. In designing a workspace that engages the range of human experience and emotion, we should take advantage of sound. It can suggest a feeling of wellness, peace, happiness, and identity, or it can help people tap into that extra bit of creativity, focus, or patience. It can give a workplace, a hospital, or a train station an unplaceable extra sense of dimension, and the average person agency about how they interact with the world around them. Yesterday’s architecture should evolve past what we see to what we hear. Workplaces deserve soundtracks: yours.

Layne Braunstein is Creative, Leader at ESI Design, an NBBJ company, and was previously the co-founder of Fake Love at the New York Times.