Noisy workplaces get the creative juices flowing

by Stephanie Zillman16 Mar 2012

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone in a busy London café – madness to some, but according to new research a moderate level of noise—the equivalent of the background buzz of conversation — stimulates more-creative thought.

Research soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research will discuss the results of several experiments involving more than 300 people which canvassed their productivity across a range of scenarios. Participants were tasked with exercises demanding mental flexibility, including word-association games and practical problems.

The participants were played noise recorded in a cafeteria, roadside, and at a construction site at three levels: soft, moderate, and loud. The ‘moderate’ level was equivalent to what one would hear in a bustling café (70 decibels), and this was found to be the optimum noise level for balancing both creativity and productivity. People in the moderate-noise groups scored the highest results on an objective word-association test, and their answers to the other problems were rated (albeit subjectively) by peers as being the most creative.

The study adds to previous research which has suggested that small doses of distraction – such as hard-to-read fonts – force the mind to compensate and work at a more abstract level, which then fosters heightened creativity.

Notably, the possibility that sound worked as a stimulant was considered but rejected. While participants’ heart rates did rise when they first encountered noise, this soon returned to a normal level.

Perhaps the sweet spot lies somewhere between silence, office banter and jackhammers.

The noisiest jobs in the world

Working in a bottle plant - 88db

Motorcycle courier - 90db

Flying an offshore helicopter - 97db

(On the way to work..)Travelling on a train listening to an iPod - 100dB

Lawnmower - 107db

Staff in a nightclub - 110db

Rock musicians - 110db

Airport ground staff - 140db

Shooting range marshals - 140db


Top Lighter Side

Fringe benefits: Would an on-site hairdressing salon boost engagement?
Bad bosses worse than smoking for the heart

Couriers told to cut the flirty-flirty


  • by Madeleine Baldissera 23/03/2012 2:58:00 PM

    Does anyone remember what it's like to work in a quiet environment? There seems to be noise everywhere. It is a matter of the type of noise and the level. Office banter's fine, but jackhammers - uhhh! I often take my laptop to the cafe and type away oblivious to all those around me. Do love that environment and it does do something for one's creativity while indulging in a good cup of cofee. Might just head off for that cuppa now!

  • by Felicity S Law, Business Director - Butterfly Impa 29/03/2012 2:26:44 PM

    It really does depend on the type of work you're doing. When proof reading and writing is required, there is literally, nothing more damaging to productivity like ringing mobile phones (that keep ringing and ringing!), radios being left on, excessive banter etc. Studies have shown that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to return to the same level of concentration, prior to the disruption.
    Respecting your colleagues’ workspace goes a long way. Read Social Interruption and the Loss of Productivity .

    Felicity Law, Business Director