When astronauts arrive back on earth, they are overwhelmed by the smell of our planet. Months in hermetic shuttles and stations means they become totally used to an absence of odour. So when the hatch opens & the world comes flooding back in, a sensory overload awaits.
I thought of this when I read about a recent study about noise and productivity. Unless you work in one of those specialised chambers made to be so quiet you can literally hear your joints grind as you move, you’ll be used to blocking out noise.
We all are. Whether it’s the overly loud conversation on the table next to you in a restaurant, or the screeching “world is ending” sound of the ancient Bakerloo line trains, we’ve all developed mechanisms for screening out the background noise, and getting on with whatever we’re doing. But this doesn’t come without cost.
The study I referenced earlier found that a 10 decibel noise increase lowered productivity by about 5%. Again, to be expected. But if you look at the most recent data, it seems like noise is bothering us more than ever before. A 2022 survey found 60% of office workers felt unable to concentrate due to loud workspaces. And just 8% of people described their office as quiet.
So it seems we’re becoming more intolerant of noise. But why? Did time away from commutes and busy offices during the pandemic mean we became used to the absence of noise? Are we the astronauts stepping gingerly back to earth, where every noise sets our ears on edge?
Maybe. Or is it because - now - we do have a choice. If we have the right headphones, we can cancel noise.. I remember the first time I tried noise-cancelling headphones. It seemed like magic. Now, every time the Bakerloo background wail breaks through, I feel wronged.
Or is it because work - for many - feels a little bit different? Gone is the pleasant background noise of a thrumming office. Often it’s the discordant noise of children banging on the door (if you’re lucky) whilst working at home. Or being one of many rows of people simultaneously on team calls, trying to catch every word of that important conversation.
So it’s painful. I get it. But ultimately, we need to come to a collective accommodation with noise. Noise is what happens when things happen. Trains move. Fingers type. Deals close. Whether it’s high performers listening to loud music, children wailing on aeroplanes, or Soho nightclubs (shock! horror!) being open past 11pm. If every bit of noise is squeezed out, then the future looks dull and grey. A world without noise is a world of nothing.
Not only that - but a little bit of ambient noise can even encourage creativity. It’s all about the context. Sometimes we need silence. Sometimes we can put up with the humdrum noises of the coffee shop. Sometimes we want to feel the energy of an entire team hurrying towards a deadline to get us over the line.
As Paul Graham put it: “I can continue working on something in a noisy place, but to start working on something I need quiet.”
I think the way to forge a peace here is by choice. A world of mid-level extremely-annoying noise is a recipe for noise sectarianism. There should be a time to get away and focus. A time to come together as a team. A time to plough through emails.
And a time to go full Michael Burry in the Big Short and listen to thrash metal whilst analysing subprime mortgage-backed securities.
Ultimately, whether you’re on a production line with industrial ear defenders on, or in a design studio trying to work out the precise shape of the serifs on your latest font, noise is the perfect example of where one size most certainly doesn’t fit all.
Instead - in our moving, living, discordant world - we should focus on being able to make time for everything, and a workspace for every activity under the sun.