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MIT Technology Review

People who really miss the office are listening to its sounds at home

Quarantine created a need for background noise among white-collar workers, who were used to open offices.

September 10, 2020
image of person typing on keyboard on left, printer and fax machine on lower right, and phone on top in black and white with bright pink backgroundimage of person typing on keyboard on left, printer and fax machine on lower right, and phone on top in black and white with bright pink background
Ms Tech | Pixabay

Earlier this year, before the pandemic and lockdowns, audio engineer Stéphane Pigeon received an unusual request: would he consider making sounds that replicated the office?

“I said, ‘No, no, no, I will not do it!’” says Pigeon, the creator of myNoise.net, which has become a cult resource among people looking for background noise to help them focus on work. “I thought, ‘That is so confusing. People don’t want to listen to those sounds.’”

But Pigeon continued to receive more requests. So when the pandemic hit, he eventually gave in and set to work. Since its release in March, there have been 250,000 streams of Calm Office, making it one of his most popular sounds on myNoise. Users can adjust the volume of certain sound effects and tones using a series of animated sliders. Pigeon is still bewildered that Calm Office’s clackety keys, fax machine whirrs, and distant strains of conversation have become as popular as they are.

Feeling safe

After all, people who use sounds to help them concentrate have traditionally veered toward the natural or peaceful: rainstorms, Buddhist gongs, chirping birds. In recent years, “lo-fi chill” and other forms of “focus music” have become so popular that there are now multiple YouTube channels devoted to the genre.

Those channels, however, have traditionally been aimed at college students looking to zone out and hit their study flow without interruptions from their roommates. Quarantine created a need for background noise among white-collar workers, who were used to open office plans and traversing from cubicle to meeting room and back.

Many of these worker bees weren’t looking for electronic jams or Gregorian chants. Giedrius Norvilas, a 28-year-old working at a tech startup in Belfast, Ireland, says that the sound of keyboards on another site, Sound of Colleagues, made him feel “safe.” “The sound of someone else punching the keys is an indication that there are people around me,” he says.

Sound of Colleagues was, like Pigeon’s Calm Office sound, supposed to be a joke at first. It’s a product of two Swedish advertising agencies, Familjen Stockholm and Red Pipe, and features the sound of a coffee machine, telephones, rain on the window, and even an office dog.

Tobias Norman, the founder of Red Pipe, says he gets emails from happy users of the site. “I just got one today from a user in Australia who said he never thought he would miss the office, but apparently he does,” he says. “He uses Sound of Colleagues in the background; the only thing he missed is the sound of a microwave ‘Pling!’”

New focus

The Australian was one of 1.2 million total users, pushing Norman and his colleagues to create a Spotify list that is even more specific: “Early morning, desk neighbor eating breakfast,” “Annoying colleague and a surprising reaction,” “’90s office with landlines ringing.” In other words, all the things that we know from research make it hard for workers in open-plan offices to concentrate and can impair productivity.

Nick Perham, at the Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK, has researched background noise and office sounds. In a 2013 study published in the journal Noise Health, he and his wife and colleague, Helen Hodgetts, found that office noises can negatively affect both serial recall—the ability to remember information—and mental arithmetic skills, particularly when the noise involves audible, understandable conversations. But the background hum of an office created by these playlists  should work in a different way, says Perham. Products like myNoise and Sound of Colleagues help to create the “babble effect” experienced in a coffee shop: voices and sounds meld together, helping people focus by blocking out annoying background noises. 

In any case, for many workers the sounds of an office can bring a certain type of  comfort. “Some days I’ll use nature sounds like forests or oceans; other days, melodic sounds; and other days, people-based sounds like office noises,” says Brynley Louise, a 24-year-old writer based in the Pacific Northwest. But she has noticed that she typically tunes into Calm Office when she is “missing being out and about in public during these weird times.”

And that’s perhaps what listening to office sounds on loop really taps into: a sense of normalcy. We just want to believe that one day we’ll again have the luxury of being annoyed by the ping of an elevator, that one colleague who aggressively punches the keyboard, and even a cubicle mate’s breakfast chomping.