Free relax in an open plan office

Posted on 2009/10/19

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The phone rings. LOUD. It’s from the nearest cubicle. Nobody answers. It’s LOUD. I’m working on something that requires long and constant atten- LOUD -tion.  The phone stops ringing, and the colleagues’ voices return to be distracting again. There’s an informal meeting a handful of seats from me; I’m happy for them that they’re laughing, but I’m afraid the software bug I’m hunting will take the time to hide himself deeper while I’m not looking.

I think that some of you may relate to my experience. Actually, I’m sure. The greatest source of distraction for me is noise, sounds and voices; if you are like me, you will like this lecture about sound on TED:

Julian Treasure: the 4 ways sound affects us

Quoting his presentation, open plan office: productivity loss = 66%. Mr.Treasure also stresses the importance of the positive effect that some sounds have on us, even on an instinctive level; I decided to give the “birdsong therapy” a try at the office. I started searching for sounds to use, and I stumbled upon this social and free database of sounds:

The Freesound Project

Basically every user can contribute to add sounds that can be used freely as Creative Commons. The site has tons of different ambient captures of birdsong. I enjoyed very much, and found suitable for my situation, this 42 minutes long recording of birds. The file’s format is wav, and this means that the size is unnecessarily big. In order to compress the sound on my Ubuntu Linux computer, I used a context-menu driven utility for sound conversion that is a Nautilus add-on. You can install it with:

sudo apt-get install nautilus-script-audio-convert

With this utility I compressed the 420MB wav file into a 63MB good quality OGG/Vorbis audio file (Vorbis is a free open source encoding algorithm). The last problem is that at the office I have a Windows XP box, and I need a player that reads ogg files. For this reason I decided to install the codecs for Windows Media Player:

DirectShow filters – play back ogg files in Media Player

The next day I copied the birdsong inside my workstation, installed the codec, put on my headphones and jumped into the nature. It worked, somehow. The noise of the office was still present, but more distant and subdued under the melody of the forest. In order to completely annihilate the auditory pollution, I feel that classic orchestral music is more appropriate, since it gives a harmonic background covering everything else.

Give it a try: it won’t cost you a penny and it could greatly improve your productivity.

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