Habitat Soundscaping – and Now for Something Completely Different

I'm one of several analysts recently briefed about Plantronics' recent Habitat Soundscaping launch, and I think it's fair to say I wasn't the only one who didn't know quite what to expect from the company (see related article, "'Habitat Soundscaping': You Didn't Know You Needed It'"). Given the shape-shifting, moving target we call "collaboration," I say that's a good thing. We have no shortage of offerings that can support every imaginable type of collaboration, and given how hard it is to choose from all this, Habitat Soundscaping is refreshing in a Monty Python-esque way as being "something completely different."

My intention is not to poke fun at Habitat Soundscaping, but based on just a casual glance, doing a double-take wouldn't be out of line. We're so used to hearing about the cloud's scalability, seamless integration across networks, open APIs, chatbot automation, one-touch conferencing, etc., that you'd think collaboration was completely driven by digital technology. Being known as a headset vendor, this wouldn't be its route to market, but there's plenty of room for innovation -- as shown by the many non-traditional players in this space.

What's the Problem?

Before getting to the "what," let's talk about the "why." As per my briefing:

  • 70% of U.S. workers are situated in open spaces (International Facility Management Association)
  • Since 2010, the global average office space per worker has dropped 49%, from 225 square feet to 151 square feet (Corenet Global)
  • 53% of employees are disturbed by others when trying to focus (Gensler Workplace Survey 2013)
  • On average, employees take 23 minutes to get back on track after being interrupted (Gloria Mark, UC Irvine)

From these few data points, the problem set should be clear, and now it's easier to understand the rationale behind Habitat Soundscaping. Plantronics isn't in the business of providing collaboration solutions, but it has correctly identified an opportunity to improve the environment in which collaboration takes place.

While the concept behind Habitat Soundscaping may sound like soft science, Plantronics has done its homework. It identified a problem, didn't see anything out there addressing it, and decided to build a solution itself. Whether you buy it or not, kudos are in order for Plantronics in taking a fresh approach and finding new ways to make the workplace more productive. More importantly, it's built its case around some solid data and trends, so no "alternative facts" narrative will cloud your thinking.

So, What Is It?

Based on the name, you'd be hard-pressed to guess what this is about, so I'll briefly explain. For more detail, Plantronics has built a website specifically for telling the full story, and it's worth a visit. I've written elsewhere about how enterprises need to consider the workplace environment for a holistic approach to collaboration, and this is one way to do that.

With this being so new, analysts haven't had a chance yet to coin a new acronym, so it's best to follow Plantronics's lead, which describes Habitat Soundscaping as an "intelligent acoustic management service." It's not quite UXaaS, but that's part of the story. The basic idea is that workers perform better in calm environments rather than in chaotic offices, and Habitat Soundscaping tries to provide that. It's OK to admit that you've never heard of biophilia -- I hadn't -- but as Wikipedia explains, it's the "innate tendency to seek connections with nature" (along with being the title of an album by Bjork!).

This may seem totally out of left field, but keep in mind how our lives are increasingly being shaped by virtual and online experiences. Dystopians like me will see this as the logical progression in our march towards machine-like efficiency where workers are just production units serving the needs of big data. Hopefully, we'll never get there, and Plantronics believes that putting more "nature" in the workplace will help make workers more productive. To do that, Habitat Soundscaping has three core elements:

  1. Audio - more specifically, "nature-inspired audio." Basically, this serves as white noise to mitigate the distractions caused by ambient sound and the chatter of co-workers around us, especially when working in open spaces. Following the biophilia theme, this is accomplished by the sound of moving water, either in the form of an actual in-office waterfall, or a virtual one that pipes in the calming audio.

  2. Visual - as in images of outdoor scenery. The next best thing to working in the great outdoors is being surrounded by images on the walls and ceilings. Not every office has windows with a view, so again, a virtual environment is a good proxy to reinforce the biophilia vibe.
  3. Intelligent software - finally, we get to the technology driving this immersive experience. Plantronics knows a lot about acoustics and audio dynamics, and this is where it put it to work. By wiring the office with a network of speakers, amplifiers, and distraction sensors, it creates "biophilic audio," detecting and mitigating external distractions, much like the way noise cancelling headphones work. This is the hardware component of its solution, and the software piece comes in the form of subscription service whereby Plantronics manages the experience in the cloud. The intelligence comes from the ability to dynamically adjust the audio levels of the water sounds based on the overall activity level in the office, and can vary from space to space within the office.

Continue to next page to read about the business case, and more