I moved to Indy in 2005 and attended my first Indy 500 race in May of 2006. I think the moment that first race began was the loudest moment I have ever experienced in my whole life. It was so loud I could feel it inside my body. We had to wear ear protection, and by the end of the race, I still had a little ringing in my ears but boy was I hooked. I became Indy’s newest month of May super fan.
The race is loud.
I think we can all agree on that, especially if we’re comparing race day to the top floor of the Central Library. But thinking about the difference between those two places gets me thinking: what is loud, and why does it matter in physical space? When we conduct workplace research, we are often told by organizations that they think their open office space is loud, or that they fear making changes or creating an open office space because it might be loud.
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So what is loud?
Loud is simply a description of volume, or intensity of sound. At DORIS we measure “loud” (aka volume) during our workplace research projects, by using a sound meter to track the decibel level throughout the office. On almost every project we measure, we find that outputs range from 40 to 60 decibels (spoiler alert, that’s not loud). If you’re not familiar with decibel readings, there is a significant compound difference between 40 and 60. 40 decibels is what you might experience inside a library. 60 decibels is what you might experience inside a buzzing coffee shop. Once you get to 120 decibels or more things get dangerous–like a rock concert or an IndyCar race. OSHA says we shouldn’t be exposed to anything higher than 85 decibels for longer than an eight-hour timeframe.
Many times, in a workplace, a main source of distracting decibels is talking.
The human brain is not a good listener. In fact, it’s only capable of processing roughly one and a half conversations at once before it begins trying to multitask. Once two conversations are audible, your brain will instinctively try to listen to both. This will result in failure to hear either of the conversations. That’s why people who work in an office where there’s enough background noise to mask the audibility of the conversations happening around them actually have a greater chance of focusing than their comrades in a really quiet office where one group is having a conversation.
In conclusion, sound is a complicated science, and DORIS researchers are by no means sound scientists. But we can tell you that the solution is probably not putting an idling IndyCar in the middle of your office. Instead, maybe we need to rethink the need for complete and utter silence in the open office. Loud doesn’t always mean what we think it means, and it’s definitely not always the enemy. Perhaps a solution could lie in leveraging volume in the workplace. After all, loud is the new quiet.