You don’t expect the manufacturer of audio headset equipment to be an expert on physical workplaces, but Paul Dunne of Plantronics made me stop and think when he said; “The nicer they build them, the less they’re used.”
He’s referring to new office developments where the popular trend for lots of glass and shiny hard surfaces along with high ceilings and exposed ducting isn’t as cool as it seems.
“It’s often an acoustic nightmare, a place where the initial appeal wears off – as people quickly find that they can’t hear themselves think”, continues Paul “so they avoid the office whenever possible and work elsewhere. A case of style over substance – where nobody thought about the practical needs of the end user.”
Audio – the veteran unsung hero of collaboration
Think about how often in online meetings we hear, “can the person in the noisy office, please go on mute, we can’t hear anything.” The video element and screen sharing might be perfect, but without clear audio, we all struggle. If you can’t can’t hear what people are saying, everyone is disengaged and can’t wait for the meeting to end.
It was an audio quality issue that prompted two airline pilots to start Plantronics over 50 years ago. Cockpit audio quality was so poor that they set out to invent an alternative to the conventional headsets of commercial aviation. They have an impressive heritage – Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and uttered his legendary words through a Plantronics device!
Their headsets are designed to minimise background noise, optimising the audio experience. Their research and development blends space race technology with recording studios and Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory – an environment where a ‘miked up’ robot sits waiting for you and moulded human ear models hang on the wall.
“I was told that our new headset virtually eliminates wind noise,” says Plantronics Patrick Ellis, “so on a very blustery day I tested this by attending a conference call whilst walking around the building. Nobody could hear the wind noise at all – they just assumed I was in the office”.
But this is about much more that headsets – it’s about the entire physical working environment, office layouts, room options and the internal fixtures and fittings that are vital to staff morale, productivity, and wellbeing.
How often do we find that a company’s exterior and visitor areas are impressive places, but the functional areas where the work takes place are often much less appealing? We still see rows of desks facing each other. Stark, poorly lit places that are too hot or cold, and where people complain of too much noise or an embarrassing silence where they’re reluctant to speak to colleagues, let alone join a call or webinar.
Who hasn’t found themselves in an office, opposite a loud colleague on back to back calls where concentration is virtually impossible? Or a place so quiet that people pace the corridors and stairwells on mobile phones, seeking privacy because there’s nowhere else to go.
Do leaders in their private offices, ever consider the negative impact of battery chicken office environments and the levels of staff turnover? There are many leading enterprises where such environments proliferate today, and no doubt will continue for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to overlook another person’s situation if your place of work is fine. Rather like Orwell’s Animal Farm in the 21st century – a place where everyone’s equal, but some are more equal than others.
Walking the walk
But much has been learned over recent years by companies like Plantronics, Sei Mani and others about the workplace and business transformation, and there are innovative and simple physical things that can be done to improve the working environment, here are just a few:
Sound absorption walls can be introduced, like the one shown on the left, with a country scene, It helps reduce the impact of background noise by deadening office sounds and enabling a quieter working environment.
Desk pods are now available where people don’t directly face one another, desks are off-set at a 120-degree angle. Hardly rocket science, but more often than not people still sit directly opposite colleagues, seeing and hearing everything they say and do.
Ever heard of Pink Noise? I won’t go into the technicalities, but pink noise can be used in business settings. The noise, which can sound a little like the heating or aircon masks background sound, helping to increase productivity and concentration among employees.
Empathetic companies have created different types of rooms away from desks that are designed for certain types of use and with clear usage policies. There are small soundproofed booths where you can join a call or webinar without being overheard, but you can’t base yourself there for several hours, you’re not allowed to – as there are 1 hour maximum egg timers on the outside of each one.
There are concentration rooms where you can find peace and silence. Who hasn’t walked over to a colleague in the office to discuss something (isn’t that one of the benefits of a physical office) – only to be met with ‘sorry, can we do this another time, I’ve a deadline to hit and I need to concentrate’.
There are small meeting rooms with no audio or video equipment in them, that are for impromptu face to face meetings only. And there are the usual larger meeting rooms and dedicated video and telepresence rooms that need to be pre-booked. Smart room-booking systems can now integrate with Outlook, and they can be set to restrict people booking rooms – so those room hog experts have to think again.
If organisations create well-designed office environments with features like this, then people will come for style and stay for substance.