Guest blog: The sounds of the office - By Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor in Organisational Studies, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England

Think about the sounds of your office or place of work. Phones ringing; printer printing; coffee machines percolating; office banter; traffic; laughter; raised voices; steps down a corridor; the hubbub of the canteen; the lift ‘pinging’; the clicking of heating pipes in a radiator; the gentle whir of a laptop; the hum of a hairdryer; the swish of a mop; the car engine; the radio; the colleague next to you eating their lunch…

Our senses are varied but our understanding and exploration of the sounds of work is limited. Contemporary organisational research and debate in this area is strangely silent and there is a sort of hierarchy to the senses where images and the visualisation of work and our offices make up a vast part of our hyper-visible/ visual society. In this blog (which is a kind of think-piece on the topic), I’d like to suggest we consider what we hear at work and why it might be important. What are the sounds of the workplace? What do employees hear when they are at work and what do these sounds mean to them? Do you have music in the office – if so, should it be a playlist or the radio? And what are the ‘unmanaged sounds’; the murmurs and auditory normality of everyday life? As is often the case with the familiar and the ordinary, we let it pass us by and rarely stop and examine (or listen to!) how these aspects of work may give us greater insight into the cultural experiences of everyday life in an organisation.

In his work on ‘soundscapes’ R. Murray Schafer talked about the significance of sound and the acoustic features of everyday life and how, with a better awareness of the sounds around us, we could become better attuned to our environments, communities and relationships. It is advocates of sound (including noise and music), such as Schafer and others, that encourage us to renegotiate this hierarchy of the senses. As Diane Ackerman puts it, ‘sounds thicken the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us’. As such, there is an emerging field of work and interest that has started to pioneer how sound impacts on our lives. We may simply consider how organisations have developed their cultures and identities using music and anthems we hear in the media, and as consumers we are now ‘sensual shoppers’, often at the receiving end of sensory marketing, and where retail sounds and auditory tools are used to lure us into purchase.

Firstly, we might think about how sounds manage and control us at work. In the pre-industrial era workers were known to make their own ‘sounds’ during the working day – they made their own music. Sailors and manual labourers would sing as they worked. But as the industrial age developed and work in factories increased, music and songs at least, were synonymous only with leisure pursuits and even whistling at work was a finable offence. A significant change can be seen when broadcasting music in British factories during the Second World War was used to increase productivity and efficiency. Songs on the BBC programme ‘Music While You Work’ were piped into the factory floor through loudspeakers and were thought, certainly by the Human Relations Movement, to sustain a ‘background of brisk, cheerful but unobtrusive music’ and to encourage workers to work more effectively.

The use of sounds as a form of power and control at work are still being used in similar ways. Thomas Cook’s call centre in Falkirk uses ‘sensorama’ – not only piping the smell of coconut oil into the workplace but the sounds of the seaside and relaxing music, to make employees feel as though they are on holiday (see Richard Donkin’s The Future of Work) and to embrace the culture of the organisation. But then it could also be said that the management of culture using such methods seduces employees into conformity and manipulates the workforce.

And what of the more subjective, individual and personal experiences of sound? How do sounds play a part in locating and relocating us and how do they shape our experiences, memories and the spaces we occupy? Sounds of urban, work, and personal life all go towards locating us in spaces and places we occupy and relocate us in memories or other ‘metaphorical’ places.

One way of thinking about sound is that it can locate us in private worlds in public spaces – it can help us tune out of what surrounds us and tune in to a more ‘private’ spaces. Some researchers talk about how we attempt to escape noisy city sounds and our open-plan offices. It is common to see those working in open-plan offices using iPods/ playlists on phones and earphones to create personal surroundings; anesthetizing their environment by tuning out of the noise and into their music. Certainly, this use of sound can create private zones for personal reflection and escape – and that’s arguably important when considering the well-being of staff at work.

Others too make connections between the ‘self’ and what is termed ‘atmospheric texture’. Some researchers talk about radios and electric fans and how they are used in the workplace to provide ‘white noise’ or create ‘walls of sonic texture’ so that employees can create a sense of privacy and metaphorically relocate themselves away from the noise and/ or interactions with others. In my research with hairdressers, it emerged they use the hum of the hairdryer to create their own ‘walls of sonic texture’ to tune out the often emotionally-laden conversations with clients and establish a moment of respite and peace during their work – a way of negotiating the emotional labour that is so much part of this profession. Filling the air with these sounds appears to cocoon individuals and create a personal space where they might escape undesirable sounds and mentally situate themselves elsewhere.

This should also provoke some thinking about how we manage sounds in our open-plan offices.  Interestingly, I have recently been working with an organisation called Armadillo – a Bristol-based CRM agency who are currently moving from a Bath townhouse, where staff and teams work in separate rooms (often with different music being played in different ‘team’ rooms), to a new, Bristol-based office designed for open-plan working where all teams will be working across the same space. It’s an exciting move for all the right reasons, and as part of our pre-occupancy work together, we found that music in the office was a fundamental part of this organisations identity.  We talked about how this spatial change was going to impact the teams and their everyday working practices and what emerged, were two things: firstly, listening to music is an individual endeavour and it is important for that person to create their own cocoon; the second is the social element of music and how it creates a wider, more ‘creative’ environment for these workers. This sparked much debate within the organisation and raised some interesting questions about how music will be accommodated in the new open-plan office – with the conundrum of how to manage music as ‘private space’ vs. music as part of their ‘collaborative space’. In such open spaces, it’s great to have the option to stick your headphones in, but as Neil Usher reminds us, it can be ‘read’ by others in the workplace as essentially ‘clamping a private office’ onto your head. So, this has opened up some honest, open and creative conversations at Armadillo about how this will work - where music will be situated, who will manage the music choices and when and how this will change, and why music is important for different reasons for different teams. And of course this has led to much wider conversations about where other ‘sounds’ will be located in the new office and how the spaces will be configured – the coffee machine, the collaborative break out spaces, and the quieter secluded spaces. It means this organisation is really thinking about the sounds of the office and the impact it has on the everyday lives of their staff.

As we move into more and more shared, open and collaborative spaces for work that are filled with a while host of sounds and noises, it is these sorts of conversations that every organisation should have.

For more on this topic see: Shortt, H. (2013) Sounds of the salon: The auditory routines of hairdressers at work. International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion, 5 (4). pp. 342-356