For the many Americans who left their offices to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new soundtrack plays in the background of their workdays. It might include the sound of their children playing. Or their dog barking at the mail carrier. Or their partner taking a work call in the next room.
On top of these distractions, many workers are all too familiar with the subpar audio quality that turns their important Zoom meeting into an exhausting game of awkward delays, interruptions, and connection glitches that leave you straining to catch everyone’s comments.
A panel sponsored by EPOS—a Copenhagen-based audio-tech company—during this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival brought experts together to discuss how noise and bad sound affect workers and what people can do to improve their auditory experiences—and their work performance. Here are the key takeaways from their discussion.
1. Noise is no small concern
According to Joel Beckerman, a composer and the founder of sonic branding studio Man Made Music and the co-author of The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy, sound plays a bigger role in our daily lives than people typically realize “We are not really aware of the sounds around us a lot of times—we’re just aware of how we feel around these sounds,” he said.
Often, people don’t take notice until sound becomes a problem. And when you hear an unpleasant or distracting sound, it doesn’t just break your concentration, it also produces a physical response. “When noise disrupts our mood, it sets off our stress response, and we see things like increased blood pressure and increased heart rate,” said Erica Walker, a researcher and founder of The Community Noise Lab at Boston University School of Public Health. “Over a period of time, that constant stimulation of the stress response leads to the manifestation of more serious diseases like heart attacks and strokes.”
Poor audio quality is a similarly vexing problem that makes virtual meetings a frustrating experience. In fact, according to Jesper Kock, vice president of research and development at EPOS, research from the company shows the very real downside of poor audio: “If you have a bad experience when you’re communicating with others [due to a] bad device,” he said, “then you can get a very fatigued brain.”
2. You can improve your audio setup
Investing in quality equipment can make a big difference. A microphone, noise-canceling headphones, and a good laptop, for example, can all improve your audio and minimize interference for both you and your audience. But, panelists say, there are also several easy, cost-free tips that can help:
- Check the acoustics. Before your next work-from-home business call, speak out loud in the area where you usually conduct calls and listen for an echo. If sound bounces off the walls of your space, look for a quieter place in your home that might limit the echo.
- Try to reduce background noise. Pay attention to sounds around your home. Do you hear noticeable traffic noise? An upstairs neighbor clomping around on hardwoods? If so, try locating your workspace away from sources of noise.
- Test the sound. Have a practice call with a family member or friend to see if they can hear you clearly.
- Speak slowly. Beckerman emphasized how it’s easy to forget this simple but powerful tool for clear communication. “When you have multiple people on the line, you really have to speak very slowly and carefully to make sure people are listening and to have those white-space moments between thoughts and ideas,” he said.
3. Silence isn’t necessarily ideal
It might seem counterintuitive, but if noise is the problem, silence may not be the solution. Silence itself can be unsettling. “If you go into an open space where there are no trees around, you can almost feel the silence,” Kock said. “And if you apply too much silence to the auditory system of a human being, it will drive him crazy because the brain is used to filtering out background noise. When we develop products, we typically apply a little bit of background noise, even though we have the ability to filter it out. Otherwise, the brain will be confused.”
Clear audio and minimal noise are critical to doing your best work. The good news, panelists agreed, is that there are many factors within your control. And absolute solitude—while a dream, perhaps, for those working amid noise and distraction—isn’t necessary. “For a noise researcher, I’m surprisingly anti-quiet,” Walker said. “I think that instead of trying to find quiet spaces, we should be trying to find peace.”