It’s not just you. Working in the office is getting harder today. Not only are demands on productivity increasing, so are the distractions that keep people from functioning at their best. Whether that be the online temptations of social media, the cacophony of people talking all around you, the quantity and variety of different communications tools, or the “improved” open floorplan spaces that many companies are now using, it’s a wonder that anybody can get anything done in some office environments today.
In fact, a combination of these factors is leading to an increased desire to work at home. In a recent study conducted by TECHnalysis Research on workplace trends with just over 1,000 US-based workers at medium (100-999 employees) and large (1,000+ employees) companies, one of the key findings was that workers expect to decrease their time in a traditional office/cube environment by about 10% over the next two years and shift those work hours to home.
The primary reason? Noise and other distractions.
On the one hand, this seems like a fine and logical conclusion, but it runs counter to some of the key reasons companies have shared office space in the first place: collaboration, interaction, and the kind of casual conversations that can only occur face-to-face. In fact, 67% of study respondents said that they have more successful collaborations with co-workers in the office versus 12% who said they did while working at home. On top of that, 57% of respondents acknowledged that they were generally more productive in the office versus 39% who said they were more productive from home.
Clearly, there’s compelling evidence, even from employees, that working at the office a good portion of their time just makes sense. In fact, it’s not terribly surprising that big companies like IBM, Yahoo, Best Buy and others — some of whom, as tech industry leaders, were aggressive early adopters of flexible work-at-home arrangements — have started to change their opinions on work at home and tell their employees that they need to come into the office more often.
The Open Office Solution
To drive more interest in working at the office, many companies started adopting several new concepts several years back that were designed to help give employees some of the flexibility that they enjoyed from working outside the office, while simultaneously driving even higher rates of interaction and collaboration. Chief among these developments were open floor plans, with large rooms divided only by low-walled structures, and “hotel-ing,” where workers can choose to sit in different parts of the office or near different groups of people on different days. The goal of both efforts was to create an inviting office space that would encourage employees to come in and collaborate with their co-workers on a more frequent basis. They’ve become so popular that 70% of US employees work for companies with open floor plans.
The problem — as many companies who adopted these environments quickly discovered — is that these types of open environments actually make the noise problem even worse. This ended up having the exact opposite effect of what was intended and drove employees away from the office even more than traditional workspaces. The survey found that office noise had either a modest or serious impact on productivity for 70% of employees who worked in these open and shared work environments.
So, what’s a company to do?
Well, ironically, it seems that noise — purposeful sound, to be precise — can be part of the solution to a noise – based problem. The trick is finding the right kinds of sounds.
Creating The Right Sonic Environment
Academic studies have been done and practical world experiments have been run to solve these noise – based issues — everything from trying to create a library – like cone of silence to pumping in white or pink noise to attempt to mask some of the ambient sounds, but none have really worked. Obviously, in an office environment, demanding total silence just isn’t practical, and the white noise masking techniques have been proven to raise stress hormone levels and cause headaches and fatigue for many people.
What does work, however, are natural sounds, particularly the sound of running water. As biological, nature-based creatures, it should come as no surprise that we are instinctively drawn to and comforted by sounds of nature. Even better, the sound of running water turns out to be a wonderful way to mask distracting noises, and conversations, in an office environment. In fact, there’s a whole new branch of discovery called Biophilic Science that’s dedicated to the study of how natural sounds and images can influence our attention, concentration and even cognitive functioning. The bottom line? It helps.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can just buy a bunch of water noise-generating machines or run gurgling water sounds through your personal Bluetooth speakers to reap the benefits. In the kind of large, open space work environments that most employees find themselves in, the best solution is to pump water sounds in through a connected and coordinated set of ceiling speakers.
But even the calming sound of water isn’t a panacea by itself because it creates another set of dilemmas. First, without a visual connection to water, it turns out that water sounds can be a bit confusing, particularly if you’re in plain view of a sunny window, or concerned about potential water leaks. (But to satisfy your curiosity, no, it does not increase people’s need to go to the bathroom….) Second, water sounds are at a constant level and, logically, to mask louder sections of an open office environment — I’m looking at you, Bob in accounting — you need to be able to compensate for these differences across the entire workspace.
The solution is via two other key components designed to complement the core audio experience. First, is one of two types of visual water displays: either thin, vertical fountains in various forms placed in a central location in a given workspace, or a set of large LCD displays with natural scenes of running water used for a similar purpose. Second, is an intelligent system of sensors and web-based software that listens for changes in the audio environment — like someone having a loud phone call — and automatically adjusts the audio level of the water sounds in nearby, affected zones.
The end result is a remarkably effective tool that builds a sonic environment that enables people to work more productively and efficiently in much closer proximity than they would otherwise be able to. In fact, acoustic and audio communications pioneer Plantronics, who created (and uses) this solution they call Habitat Soundscaping, found that the distraction distance (that is, the optimal distance between employees in an open office floor plan to avoid being able to intelligibly hear what other people are saying) without Habitat Soundscaping in place is 32 feet using the Speech Transmission Index test, but the distraction distance is cut down to just 13 feet with Habitat Soundscaping enabled. For facilities, real estate, and even HR managers who have to think through the practical and economic impacts of new workspace environments, those differences could have a huge monetary impact on their organizations, not to mention the calming, biophilic science-based benefits to the health, happiness, and productivity of their employees.
The reality of today’s open floor plan spaces is a challenging one for most workers, particularly from a noise perspective. Unfortunately, most companies don’t have effective ways to ameliorate the issues. But, for those organizations who want to overcome the distractions of the modern office, there is a promising new solution that really needs to be seen and experienced. Thanks to the sights and sounds of nature, the differences can be dramatic.