Walk into any open-plan office and you're almost certain to see employees taking extreme measures to achieve a little privacy. One New York Times article reported on workers huddled in broom closets for a quiet chat. More commonly, everyone will just be bopping along to whatever their headphones are piping into their ears.

But the aim of open-plan (besides the cost savings) is that the design is supposed to facilitate interaction. If everyone is too worried about being overheard by all and sundry to actually talk to colleagues, then that defeats the whole point.

Ah, you might say, I know the solution to this one -- white noise. And indeed some companies pipe in nondescript background sound to mask conversations. With that background buzz you can hear what the person right next to your in saying but not the guy three seats over making an appointment with his doctor.

But white noise is, by definition, neutral. It does nothing for your team's performance beyond the simple gift of giving them some (auditory) space to talk. According to science there might be a better alternative. New research out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute presented at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America suggests nature sounds might not just mask office chatter, but actually increase your team's productivity as well.

A babbling brook beats white noise?

To test the idea, the research team asked volunteers to complete tasks while listening to either normal office sounds, standard white noise, or a natural sound such as a burbling stream. The experiment is still ongoing but things are looking promising for nature sounds.

"The mountain stream sound possessed enough randomness that it did not become a distraction. This is a key attribute of a successful masking signal," reported graduate student Alana DeLoach, who is working on the research. Plus, in previous studies by the same researchers nature sounds have been shown to boost concentration in individual listeners. The team is optimistic that the same sort of sounds will be shown to not only help open-plan office denizens focus, but also boost their cognitive functioning and increase overall worker satisfaction.

While it's worth keeping an eye out for the conclusions of the research, this is one scientific insight you will truly do no harm trying out before the final word is in. Why not try playing the sound of soothing waves or a mountain stream and see how your team likes it? You've got nothing to lose and, science suggests, a whole lot of additional productivity to gain.

Published on: Jan 5, 2016