The pandemic almost killed the open office plan. Immersive sound wants to save it.

In an attempt to make open offices more attractive--once employees do come back--some office design companies are toying with immersive sound. Certain sounds, or tonalities, that incorporate a range of biophilic notes (which may stem from nature, like gentle ocean waves or the rhythm of soft rain drops) can evoke emotions, warm feelings, and may even drive productivity. They're betting both companies and employees will like the sound of their pitch.

One immersive sound offering, dubbed Made Music Journey, is the product of a partnership between Made Music Studio, a global sound studio based in New York City, and Spatial, an Emeryville, California, audio software platform. The duo announced the partnership last November, and have since been signing up unknown numbers of companies--which means some office workers will be greeted with immersive sonic experiences upon their return to the workplace. (Neither MMS nor Spatial would share names of current clients.) 

Here's how it works: Spatial's software platform allows customers to tailor their audio environment in real time that scales to whatever space they're in. Made Music Studio, meanwhile, offers a library of original music and custom sound. These immersive sound experiences aim to help emotionally move or connect people to that same space, says Spatial's CEO and co-founder Calin Pacurariu. And if you'd like to hear a snippet of something similar, consider checking out the 10-minute meditative sonic journey MMS recently created.

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And they're customizable. The soundscape is scalable once you fine-tune your workforce's preferences. A welcome ambience might incorporate wind-related sound along with synthesizer pads/arpeggios, which may be geared toward lobbies as they can spark warmth and feelings of connection.

A more focus-oriented ambience, rather, may be heavy with acoustic instruments, while also tying in the sounds of running water, wind, and bird song, and human-generated sounds as well. The focus ambience may boost productivity, and is built for use in quieter working spaces. 

Science backs that up. An April 2015 study from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggests that natural sounds can enhance cognitive function and improve the ability to concentrate. Prior studies conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois show that the right level of ambient noise can aid work performance. 

Spending time in nature or looking at nature has a calming effect on the brain,  reducing stress responses and increasing immune function, according to David Rock, a neuroscientist and CEO of the NYC-based consulting firm NeuroLeadership Institute. 

And overall sound definitely has an impact on the brain, though a large chunk of that is mostly unconscious, he added. For example, the sound of a big city tends to activate a mild threat response with low levels of stress while sounds of nature can activate a milder reward state. 

But Rock pointed out that if the immersive sound is too obvious, some employees might feel annoyed. And others may not like that kind of sound at all, which could even have a negative impact on their productivity, he said.

He recommends giving people the choice to be in the soundscape or not. Rock says even having a choice turns out to be a strong motivator. "Feeling like you've been given choices activates reward networks, whereas when you feel like you've had choices taken away from you feels like activated threat networks," Rock said. "It's a primary driver in the brain."

Whatever employers land on for reconfiguring their offices, one thing is clear: It must be different from the office of the past. Research shows that open office plans can negatively affect collaboration and wellness among employees, so whether the open office plan sticks around remains to be seen.

But maybe, just maybe, a little smooth jazz can help.