'Habitat Soundscaping': You Didn't Know You Needed It

As a contact center industry analyst, it's not unusual for me to take a vendor briefing on new headset technology, a prime agent tool that's ever evolving (see this week's No Jitter post on three trends to watch). So, when Plantronics asked for time on my calendar, I expected a contact center or unified communications-focused discussion. What I heard about instead was Habitat Soundscaping -- and I was fascinated.

Plantronics describes Habitat Soundscaping as an intelligent acoustic management service that helps transform distracting, dysfunctional, open office spaces into peaceful environments where people can focus, collaborate, and thrive. The service uses nature-inspired audio and visuals, coupled with intelligent software, to mitigate distractions due to speech -- the most common complaint employees have about their open workspaces.

During a briefing, Plantronics' Beau Wilder, vice president of innovation waves and new products, and Robert Manaserro, manager, global product marketing, presented data from U.S. and Scandinavian academic research studies that quantified the need for a new approach to sound management.

  • On average, a worker takes 23 minutes to get back on track after an interruption
  • 53% of employees are disturbed by others when trying to focus
  • Employees who work in open offices are twice as likely to take sick days compared to those working in traditional offices

To be honest, I didn't need the statistics to understand the problem Plantronics is working to correct. I have worked from home for the last 25 years, so open offices are something that happened after my time. I still remember working at A&T in Basking Ridge, N.J., and having an office with a door -- with the lowly status of entry-level manager in market research.

In the past year, however, I've had reason to visit businesses that have adopted the open office approach. At its Customer Care operation in Boxborough, Mass., Cisco has invested heavily in things like desks that move up and down (so people can work standing up) and conversation pits, where meetings are held. Though Cisco has provided some offices for meetings, I did wonder if I could work effectively in that kind of environment on an ongoing basis.

In March, as part of a trip to Dimension Data's analyst meeting, I was part of a group that visited a local contact center run by the company's Merchants business process outsourcing company. I was surprised to see an open office design there, as well. My mental model of a contact center is a place where each agent has a tiny individual space, surrounded by noise-absorbing walls. So the statistic that 70% of American employees work out of offices with an open floor plan was not as surprising to me as it might have been a year ago.

As discussed by Wilder and Manaserro, Plantronics itself had a noise problem when it moved to an open plan for its 10,000 square feet location in Santa Cruz, Calif. The company tried standard solutions, but found they didn't work. For example, white/pink noise (random noise having equal energy per octave, and so having more low-frequency components than white noise) played to mask speech made employees fatigued, and led to complaints of headaches.

Being in the sound business, Plantronics decided to create a solution. In doing its "homework," it found that the presence of natural elements (plants, running water, etc.) can improve attention and concentration. Even viewing pictures of nature can enhance cognitive functioning, mood, and working memory.

And so Plantronics created Habitat Soundscaping, with three components, two of them which introduce elements of nature:

  • Sounds - Pleasant biophilic acoustics are dispersed over a wide area to reduce speech intelligibility
  • Sights - captivating visuals -- three types of waterfalls -- detailed in the photo, below. Plantronics found that when it introduced a waterfall, absenteeism went down by 10%
  • Intelligence - This is the third element because not every day is the same as every other day, nor is every hour the same as every other hour. Plantronics-installed ceiling speakers are listening for speech; if they detect a conversation, they adjust the amount of sound. Likewise, they decrease sound levels when no conversations are detected

I agree with Plantronics' executives that the best way to understand how Habitat Soundscaping works is to experience it. The company has deployed the technology in its Santa Cruz headquarters as well as in its European office in Hoofddorp, Netherlands. I'm looking forward to visiting one of these sites soon.

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