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Plantronics Addresses Needs of the Modern Workplace

The modern workplace is built on the concept of agility and openness, giving way from "cubetopia" settings in which every office environment looks like a scene from the movie "Office Space." Open floor plans are becoming more and more common, with small huddle rooms and other conference spaces carved out for meetings. There are many forces driving this, not the least of which is budgetary concerns as businesses look to use space more efficiently.

While business leaders like open spaces, not all employees feel the same. In fact, many downright hate it. As a Washington Post contributor noted, some Apple employees were so unhappy with the open space concept designated for the company's new headquarters that they threatened to quit. It's a classic case of a mismatch in thinking between management and employees. Executives feel an environment without cubes fosters collaboration, innovation, and creativity, but workers don't like hearing those around them eating their lunches.

Who's right? As with most things in life, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Open floor plans do likely foster collaboration, but people don't spend 100% of their time collaborating. They also need time to focus and get work done.

There's no way to create work environments that magically transition between open and private spaces. Luckily, since we live in the era of innovation,we don't need the Amazing Kreskin. What's required instead is equipping employees with the right technology to ensure they can collaborate effectively but minimize the distractions created by open offices.

To help with this, Plantronics has introduced some new headsets built with the modern office in mind. One of the things that most workers and business leaders aren't aware of is that not all headsets are created equal. I see many people using the standard Apple earbuds that come with their iPhones to participate in business meetings. While these might be OK for music, they're terrible for communicating with people in noisy environments, as they pick up almost all background noise.

Plantronics' new Savi 8200 Series of wireless headsets come in two models: stereo and mono. Each is an over-the-ear wireless DECT headset that offers an impressive range of up to 590-feet line of sight, so workers can roam away from their desks. For example, employees can start collaboration sessions at their desks, but move into a huddle space or conference room if they need more privacy -- the calls won't drop or the the crystal-clear audio diminish. The Savi 8200 Series includes active noise cancellation technology and a new feature, called close conversation-limiting, that automatically cuts out the voices of co-workers so that loud talkers sitting nearby won't be heard by the people on your call. Pricing for the Savi 8200 Series runs from $440 to $460.

For corridor warriors – i.e., people constantly on the move -- Plantronics offers the Voyager 4200 UC Series, also available in stereo and mono versions. The Voyager series has long been Plantronics' flagship line, and the new headsets are the first to receive Microsoft Skype for Business Open Office certification. These are typical over-the-ear models, and feature 12 hours of talk-time and dynamic mute, which lets wearers know via whisper alert that they've begun speaking while still on mute. Being a Mac user, I really like the USB-C dongle, which obviates the need for the adapter I currently have to use. These are priced at $199 and $219, respectively, for the mono and stereo versions.

Manageability capabilities also help Plantronics distant itself from the many consumer-grade headsets available today. Plantronics Manager Pro is a SaaS offering that lets administrators manage, monitor, and maintain devices via a browser-based portal. For example, they can make firmware upgrades through the tool instead of having to upgrade each headset individually. Manager Pro also provides event reporting so IT can help identify the source of problems.

Now with Polycom assets, Plantronics also offers other technology to improve collaboration in open workspaces. Polycom devices offer a number of features aimed at ensuring high-quality collaboration with remote participants. These include capabilities such as auto-mute, Acoustic Fence for noise cancellation, and the EagleEye smart camera technology for speaker tracking. Without these, it's very difficult to incorporate remote people into collaboration sessions in open workspaces.

One of the more interesting products offered by Plantronics to aid in cutting down noise distraction is its Habitat Soundscaping, introduced last summer. Open office environments introduce a problem that most workers aren't even aware is an issue, and that's background speech. Of all the background noises in an office environment, speech is the most distracting since we're hardwired to pay attention to it. (The only exception are husbands during NFL games when their wives are trying to tell them about their days.)

In a recent conversation I had with Plantronics, executives highlighted some third-party research showing that performance and memory are impaired with high levels of background voice. Rough calculations found that background noise would cost a 500-employee company about $1.2 million in productivity losses.

Habitat Soundscaping includes features such as small waterwalls, which introduce the natural sound of water flowing to help mask background noise. Why water? Studies show that water is the most-effective and comfortable noise masker. However, water is a distraction when people don't know the source, such as an unknown dripping noise, which is why it's essential to have a physical feature, such as a waterwall, within the environment. The thesis is, because we can see it, we accept it and it helps us concentrate more.

The dynamic system actively monitors for sound in the environment and automatically raises or lowers the level of water sound as required to help muffle the distraction. I have no way of knowing whether Plantronics' research is correct, but it does more research on sounds than any company I know -- so I believe its findings.

Because of the physical efficiency gains they enable, open offices are here to stay. IT and business leaders need to work together to ensure workers have access to the right group and personal technology to be productive in meetings but also when they're sitting at their desk in a sea of other desks.

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