More than half of Australian office workers now spend their days in open-plan settings – and this is expected to grow as companies take down the walls to reduce their floorspace, costs and carbon footprint.
But open plan comes at a cost – and it seems ping pong tables and free food are far less important to employees than places where they can work without interruptions.
A study from Oxford Economics, released in June, points to epidemic levels of noise pollution in open plan offices. Of the 1200 senior executives and employees interviewed, just one per cent said they could block out distractions and concentrate without taking extra steps.
And while more than half of company decision-makers (54 per cent) believe their employees have the right tools to mitigate noise and distraction in the office, only 29 per cent of employees agree.
This noise distraction isn’t just annoying. Employees in the most raucous offices are also the most likely to say they are tempted to walk out for good in the next six months.
But that doesn’t mean we should start constructing cubicles, bringing in the shag pile carpet or pipe in the muzak.
“It’s about giving teams the right tools to create an environment where collaboration and focus work can happen at the same time in the same space,” says Marcus Rose, country manager for audio pioneer Plantronics’ Habitat Soundscaping product.
Marcus says Plantronics encountered the noise challenge when its headquarters in Santa Cruz in the US moved to open plan eight years ago.
“Almost immediately we began fielding complaints from staff about noise and distractions,” Rose explains.
“The noise was intensified by the open plan aesthetics themselves: hard, reflective surfaces like polished concrete, walls of windows and exposed ceilings that amplify sound.”
Plantronics tried the ABC of acoustics – absorption, blocking and cover – with limited success.
“We found the absorption and blocking techniques certainly helped dampen the noise but the traditional sound conditioning systems we experimented with weren’t well received by our employees.
“With nearly 60 years of on-the-ground experience in acoustics, we know that not all noise is equal. In fact, the sound of speech dwarfs all other distractions in the office.”
Rose points to a survey of 65,000 office workers by the University of California, Berkeley, which found that speech distraction was the top complaint.
“Human beings are hardwired to respond to speech. The secret is not to eliminate background noise. The key is to minimise the intelligibility of speech.”
To do so, Plantronics turned to nature for inspiration.
“There’s a reason why the sounds of rolling ocean waves or rain on a roof are so calming. The human brain interprets the slow, whooshing noise of water as non-threatening while masking other sounds that would trigger the brain’s alert response,” Rose explains.
A raft of research confirms this. The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found the sound of natural spring water was the optimal speech masker – above pink noise, instrumental music, vocal music or ventilation noise. Other research has foundthat water sounds – over and above even silence – elevate productivity, concentration and cognitive function.
Applying this research to its own workplace, Plantronics developed Habitat Soundscaping, a system which combines soothing water sounds with nature-inspired visuals and intelligent, adaptive software.
Water sounds are matched with real water features or serene digital displays.
“The visual element is important, because people need to correlate what they hear with what they can see around them. Without that visual cue, the sound can still be distracting.”
The backend intelligence uses ceiling mounted sensors to detect and quantify distracting speech, and dynamically adjust the natural sounds nearby.
“If a group of people are being rowdy in one space, the system can reduce the sound above them which encourages them to speak softer. It’s the cocktail party effect in action,” Rose says.
While Habitat Soundscaping has just launched in Australia, it has been adopted by several large international companies including tech titan Microsoft and procurement specialist CoreTrust.
As for Plantronics own team, the statistics tell the story. Leesman’s study of Plantronics’ Amsterdam office before and after the Habitat Soundscaping retrofit found a 19 per cent boost to creative thinking and a 37 per cent increase in reported relaxation. What’s more, the Leesman Index ranks Plantronics’ office in the world’s top six per cent for employee engagement and workplace impact.
“Open plan offices may be noisy – but they don’t have to be,” Rose adds.
“Using sight, sound and science can reduce distractions and bridge the gap between our intrinsic human needs and modern life’s demands.”
Learn more about Habitat Soundscaping by Plantronics: www.habitat.plantronics.com