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How to Make Open Plan Offices Work

April 8, 2019 | by IComm Australia

Attend One of Two Future of Work Sessions with Guest Speaker Dr. Libby Sander!

Wednesday 1 May ~ Breakfast or Lunch

How to make open plan offices work: Just add water

Written by Marcus Rose, Habitat Soundscaping

From big banks to small start-ups, companies around Australia are embracing the open plan office.

More than half of Australian office workers now spend their days in open-plan settings – and this is expected to grow as companies capitalise on the cost-cutting, carbon-saving and productivity potential of open plan.

The financial benefits are clear, but the incredible shrinking office isn’t just about dollars. Technology has driven workplace mobility which means fewer people are chained to their desks. Corporate values are changing too. Where once status and hierarchies ruled and were rewarded with private offices, today’s workplaces are driven by creativity and collaboration – characteristics best cultivated in an egalitarian environment.

Activity-based working, while a smart business strategy, is also a sustainable one. There is no better way to cut an office carbon footprint than to use less space.

But open plan comes at a cost. While the shift away from private offices promised to promote collaboration and creativity, the reality is often a very different story.

A study from Oxford Economics, released in June, points to epidemic levels of noise pollution in open plan offices. Of the 1,200 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%) believed their employees had the right tools to mitigate noise and distraction in the office, only 29 percent of employees agreed.

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 next six months.

Not all noise is created equal

Plantronics commissioned the Oxford Economics study to better understand how office environments can help or hinder employee health, wellbeing and productivity.

After nearly 60 years of on-the-ground experience in acoustics, we’ve learnt that not all noise is equal. In fact, the sound of speech dwarfs all other distractions in the office.

The Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, surveyed more than 65,000 office workers from around the world, finding that speech distraction was the top complaint.

Human beings are hardwired to respond to speech. Even in the womb, babies react most noticeably to sounds in the frequency range in which most speech occurs.

This primordial response may have worked well for hunters and gatherers needing to stay alert to predators, but it is driving office workers nuts.

Some workplaces have turned to white or pink noise to mask distracting speech. But imagine spending eight hours a day listening to a TV station without reception? Should we be surprised that scientific studies have found that white and pink noise can release stress hormones, which in turn can impair the brain’s ability to plan, reason, retain information and control impulses?

The secret is not to eliminate background noise – which, let’s face it, is impossible. The key is to minimise the intelligibility of speech.


Biophilic is best

Rolling ocean waves, a waterfall crashing over a cliff, the pattering of rain on a rooftop, or a soft babbling brook – there is a reason why these sounds 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.

This is why a ground-breaking study from 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.

This research is reinforced by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the United States, which has discovered that water sounds – over and above even silence – elevate productivity, concentration and cognitive function and increase overall workplace satisfaction.

At Plantronics, we applied this research to our own workplace, developing a system which combines soothing water sounds with nature-inspired visuals and intelligent, adaptive software.  The result? A 15 per cent boost to productivity and a 32 per cent increase in creative thinking.

What does this mean for facility managers? It means you don’t have to resort to expensive retrofits to reduce the noise in your building.

While acoustics are best considered at the design phase, using sight, sound and science can bridge the gap between our intrinsic human needs and modern life’s demands – and can help you create more productive places for people.


Learn more about Habitat Soundscaping here.


Attend One of Two Future of Work Sessions with Guest Speaker Dr. Libby Sander!

Wednesday 1 May ~ Breakfast or Lunch

About The Author

IComm Australia

IComm Australia

IComm Australia is a leader in Unified Communications. A Gold Partner with Microsoft, Telstra, Poly, & Jabra, we excel at INTEGRATION between the various ecosystems within the Unified Comms/Microsoft world. We are passionate about enabling organisations to look to the FUTURE and adapt to The Modern Workplace. Follow us on: LinkedIn Twitter Facebook Instagram

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April 8, 2019 | by IComm Australia

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