Office too quiet? Try a laugh track

In most busy offices, employees value a little uninterrupted peace and quiet, but workers at the British Broadcasting Corporation's finance department in west London say they have too much of a good thing.

Some of the accountants complained of feeling lonely and said they found the hushed atmosphere in their carpeted, air-conditioned new office suite at White City extremely stressful - a problem known as "pin-drop syndrome."

In a response that sounds like something out of a Dilbert cartoon, the BBC decided to install a special "mutter" machine that will provide soothing artificial background noise in the form of simulated human conversation punctuated by light laughter to improve the workplace environment.

When word of the plan emerged, the laughter outside the BBC offices was definitely audible.

According to a sound expert hired by the BBC, the noise level in the new building was just 20 decibels, which he described as "tranquility" and quieter than sitting in a garden on a lazy summer afternoon.

According to a spokesman for the BBC, the office is so quiet, "You can actually hear a pin drop. When someone gets a telephone call it's completely overwhelming compared with the silence that went before."

The 30-odd accountants' work involves poring over detailed contracts - a job that requires sustained concentration. It might be thought that a quiet atmosphere was ideal, but Yong Yan, a sound expert from Greenwich University, ruled that it was actually bad for morale and productivity.

His solution: a tape reproducing the hubbub of a normal work environment - something the BBC number-crunchers apparently were unable to do for themselves.

Nonstop recorded chit-chat will be the order of the day, not so loud as to break the concentration, or too low to make a difference. According to the BBC, "They [the machines] will play mutter, which is a level of speech that is indistinguishable so you don't know what they are actually talking about. It's low level, and it works."

Taped music was ruled out at an early stage because of potential disagreements over musical taste. BBC bosses also ruled out turning on a television or radio so that staff could listen to their own programs, because that might be too distracting.

Instead, the publicly funded corporation plans to spend more than 2,000 ($3,200) on the special tape machine and, if it proves successful, may install more in other departments.

Dr. Yan said that overquiet workplaces were becoming as big a nuisance as noisy ones once were. Double-glazed windows, efficient air conditioning, and computers have made offices far too hushed for some.

But the announcement that the BBC means to splurge on a noise machine and a consultant to advise on how to disturb the peaceful atmosphere has been treated with incredulity and derision.

One anonymous BBC staffer reportedly remarked, "This idea is daft. It should be part of our comedy scheduling."

The reaction from Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the House of Commons culture committee, was even more to the point: "This sounds to me as barmy as anything I have ever heard from the BBC, and that's quite an achievement." He added that spending on the noise machine would be included in his committee's imminent inquiry into BBC funding.

Why the BBC is not making its own noise machine is also something of a mystery, given its high-tech resources and recording facilities. According to another BBC insider, there are hundreds of staff technicians who could make a repeating "loop" tape of conversational sound effects.

As far as one of Britain's leading acoustic experts is aware, there is as yet no such machine on the market. Kyri Kyriakides is a senior partner in Sandy Brown Associates, an architectural acoustic consulting firm with a string of corporate clients across Europe and America. Mr. Kyriakides has been at the cutting edge of acoustic technology for 30 years.

"I'm aware of artificial background noise," he says. "It's known in the trade as 'white noise,' masking noise, which makes a kind of ssshhh, like the sound of a ventilator. It's been used for years in open-plan spaces to help improve speech privacy. There are firms that supply sound masking machines called random noise generators using a chip rather than a tape.

"I'm not aware of artificial background noise in the form of conversation or laughter," he adds. "There is potentially a risk that the use of 'mutter' and laughter might be disruptive, with people trying to listen to what's being said."

Meanwhile, possibly stung by criticism, the BBC is saying nothing further on the matter. Yan, its chosen sound expert, has also gone to ground, perhaps having decided that his one interview with the press was a mutter too far.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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