Research demonstrating the many ways that office design affects employees' well-being and performance continues to mount up. Perhaps no other single factor has garnered as much attention lately as sound.

The proliferation of minimalist open-space layouts, increased workstation density and a preference for collaborative workspaces have made managing workplace acoustics — and in particular, noise — a critical human resource issue. Findings from several recent studies provide insights that may help designers in their quest to achieve a more hospitable acoustic work environment.

From the earliest days of open-space office environments, designers, engineers and managers have been aware of the deleterious effect of noise on employees.

In the mid-1990s, the American Society of Interior Designers teamed up with industry sponsors Armstrong, Milliken, Steelcase and Dynasound to produce its first white paper, "Sound Solutions." On the heels of a Yankelovich Partners study that found 70 percent of office workers said their productivity would increase if their offices were less noisy, the aim the ASID white paper was educating designers as to the ways in which "integrated planning and implementation of interior design solutions can reduce noise levels and increase worker productivity."

Over time, the office environment has continued to change, but despite ongoing efforts to develop more effective solutions, noise and acoustic distractions remain a chief concern of employees and employers.

In its 2016 survey of more than 1,100 office workers, "What Workers Want," the British Council for Offices found noise ranked as one of the most important factors for nearly 8 out of 10 employees. Yet, only 45 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the noise level in their workplace.

Thus, while some progress has been made, other approaches are needed.

A growing body of evidence derived from surveys and case studies shows employees — especially creative and knowledge workers — need both collaborative and private work areas. In its U.S. Workplace Survey for 2016, Gensler reports that employees who work for companies that prioritize both individual and group work rank substantially higher on the firm's Innovation Index.

Peter Bacevice, director of research with the New York office of HLW International, states in an article on great office design for the Harvard Business Review, "Increasingly, people are rediscovering the value of quiet and focus and asking for spaces where they can concentrate." Alexandra Leadon, a doctoral candidate in Interior Design at Florida State University notes that sensitivity to noise in an open office environment may at times actually deter sharing "due to the expectation that collaboration would be a distraction to others."

Researchers are learning that the reason may be more than social or even whether one is more of an introvert than an extrovert. It may be fundamentally linked to how the brain processes ambient sound.

In a paper delivered to the 5th Joint Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the Acoustical Society of Japan in December, Takahiro Tamesue of Yamaguchi University in Japan reported on experiments he has conducted on the impact of different types of auditory stimuli on subjects' ability to perform certain types of visual and auditory tasks.

Tamesue found sounds that subjects responded to as "meaningful" were more distracting than "meaningless" or random background noise. He conjectures, therefore, that while open or collaborative workspaces help to promote idea and knowledge exchange, and thus enhance innovation and productivity, "work-related conversation might actually decrease the performance of the other employees within earshot." This is because overheard conversation — even when partially detected — is processed as "meaningful" but unwanted sound (i.e., annoying noise).

Tamesue suggests "a way to mask meaningful speech with some other sound would be of great benefit for achieving a comfortable sound environment." Of course, many employees currently employ earphones for exactly that reason, but in an environment that is supposed to be collaborative, that is a less-than-ideal solution.

Along similar lines, Robert Froemke, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroscience at NYU Langone, has been investigating how the brain interprets the sounds its hears and discovered "the same sound can mean different things inside the brain depending on the situation."

Context, as determined by what the brain perceives processing the data it is receiving from all five senses, plays a fundamental role in whether the brain treats the sound as meaningful or meaningless. Situation-specific behaviors — for instance, whether a conversation between two co-workers is perceived as social or work-related — can influence the degree to which it becomes an annoyance or distraction for other workers in the vicinity.

These findings indicate the interaction of sound with the design of the physical environment may have an even greater impact on employee well-being and performance than has been assumed to date. The solution may lie in a combination of more flexibility in the configuration of working spaces and greater tolerance for a wider diversity of work habits.

Companies that seek to optimize employee performance should perhaps heed Leadon's advice and "design beyond adequacy" to strike a better balance between promoting collaboration and shielding workers from noise and other acoustical distractions that diminish their abilities.