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Listening_womanThe digital workplace is often about introducing new technology and innovative approaches, but at the same time it can be the most basic issues that make or break a digital working environment. Elements such as ensuring privacy and confidentiality, the ability to integrate with other systems, or a tiny design flaw in the interface, can play a critical role.

Another crucial element is sound. Despite the audio environment affecting the quality of communication and heavily influencing productivity, few companies have a cross-functional strategy to deal with sound within their work environment.

Sound quality

Most obviously, poor audio quality is highly disruptive for voice-to-voice digital communication. Straining to hear what is being said is extremely irritating for users. Luckily there are always upcoming audio technology developments which improve the listening experience, so there is no excuse for workplaces to allow people to suffer from poor quality audio.

In a workplace context, typical problems that can occur include:

  • headsets of variable quality
  • earpieces or earphones having not been issued, even though video or audio is being used for communications
  • unreliable sound quality on VOIP calls
  • poor sound on video and audio conferencing (again often due to VOIP)
  • virtual participants in physical meetings having difficulty hearing what is going on
  • poorly recorded sound on videos
  • disruptive chatter in open-plan offices.

Audio quality needs to be treated as a key aspect of the user experience in the workplace, with issues such as those above eliminated.

The mobile worker

Good sound is also a precious commodity for mobile workers. Audio quality is unpredictable, partly due to strength of signal and the availability of wi-fi, but also because of potential background noise depending on the location.

Making confidential calls requiring privacy can also be problematic when you are out in public. This can even be difficult in some co-working spaces where “quiet” areas are not readily available.

I am lucky enough to be able often to work from different locations, but the timing and subject matter of my scheduled calls will frequently dictate the location of my working day.


The people who design offices have long recognized that sound profoundly affects productivity. At one level this is obvious. It’s hard to work effectively with the distraction of constant talking from the work floor or annoyance of sporadic bursts of noise from pneumatic drills outside the building.

Sound-masking (basically measures to stop disruptive noise travelling across an office) has been around since the sixties: background sound, such as “pink noise”, is played in at different frequencies throughout the office, often through the ceiling.

This “noise” stops human voices carrying, while employees become accustomed to and eventually unaware of it. Such systems can be expensive, but providers like Herman Miller have helped to establish more lightweight approaches, which can increase productivity by 38% and reduce stress by 27%. Sound-masking is not only important for productivity but for privacy as well.

The power of music

Other types of sound can have a beneficial effect on productivity. For example, start-up Focus@Will provides a streaming service offering music that has been “scientifically and artistically curated” to aid productivity in work and study. A 100-minute sequence of music helps to focus the mind through various stages and phases, claiming this: “makes it easier for you to get into the concentration flow, and then keeps you there… subtly soothing the part of your brain, the limbic system, that is always on the lookout for danger, food, sex or shiny things.”

Certainly, listening to music at work is more tolerated in offices than it once was. This used to amount to little more than a tinny radio in the post room, whereas now it is common to see employees listening to music on headphones. Requests for access to Spotify are now regularly dealt with by IT departments, even though this can lead to bandwidth issues.

Some companies, such as TripAdvisor, are even planning to introduce a workplace radio station, which will be streamed via their intranet.

Of course, you may already have your own playlist designed to help you work. If not, you could always try the playlist from this year’s DW24, to accompany your day in the digital workplace.

The sound of silence

If music can make workers more productive, at the other end of the scale, silence can (apparently) make employees lonely and may reduce productivity. For example, as far back as 1999, the BBC installed a ‘chit chat machine’ to play low-level muttering to stop their accountants experiencing what was labelled “pin drop syndrome”. This use of UK taxpayers’ money prompted Gerald Kaufman, then chair of the Commons Culture Committee, to remark: “This sounds to me as barmy as anything I have ever heard from the BBC, and that’s quite an achievement.”

Creating sound foundations

So, if you’re planning your digital workplace initiative or launch, make sure you don’t overlook the audio. The soundtrack to any working day is a basic, but vital, part of the user experience.

How do you treat audio in your digital workplace? We’d love to hear about your experiences as well as your tactics Please let us know in the comments below.

View the Digital Workplace 24 playlist!

About the author

This is a guest post by Steve Bynghall. Steve is a research associate and benchmarking evaluator for DWG, and regularly blogs for DWF and IBF. Steve is the founder of Two Hives Ltd, a consultancy specializing in KM, collaboration and intranets. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing its global extranet programme. He has co-written a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson entitled “Getting Results from Crowds“.

About the author

Steve-BynghallSteve Bynghall is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer specializing in the digital workplace, intranets, knowledge management, collaboration and other digital themes. He is DWG’s Research and Knowledge Lead, a benchmark evaluator and research analyst for DWG. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing its global extranet programme.

Connect with Steve on Twitter: @bynghall or on Google +.


  1. No mention of any technology or systems that can help to improve the actual quality of the calls between office bound and external users or between external users.

    For any mobile workforce being able to actively contribute and understand what is going on is key and if voice/video/sharing is involved dealing with the multitude of issues must be addressed or we’ll all be back in the office together again.

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