Using Nature & Technology to Solve the Open Office

Robert Manassero, Product Owner, Poly
Robert Manassero, Product Owner, Poly

Robert Manassero, Product Owner, Poly

Companies around the world continue migrating to open floor plans, promoting open concepts as a medium to foster spaces more conducive to collaboration and productivity. Day-by-day, employers are tearing down office walls and private cubicles to make room for communal desks and shared spaces to work in partnership with one another.

In a recent global study by HR consultancy, Future Workplace, it was revealed that nearly all (99 percent)employees reported they get distracted while working at their personal workspace. Even more alarming, 76 percent of all employees surveyed said their biggest distraction is a co-worker talking loudly on the phone, and 65 percent say it’s a co-worker talking nearby.

That said, there is some good news. Notably, the same study indicated that nearly three in four people would work in the office more and be more productive if employers placed greater focus on reducing workplace distractions. With noise and distractions more prevalent in the open office environment, employers must find new ways to minimize them and solve employee pain points.

Sound Distraction& Its “Natural” Antidote

Humans are unable to block out distracting conversations because we’re hardwired to pay attention to dynamic sounds like speech, it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism. So, a person chatting nearby is going to make it harder to be productive than a coffee maker or copier in the background.

As humans, we have an innate affinity towards the elements of nature. This is known as the biophilic hypothesis. Research around biophilic design shows that people experience a higher sense of well-being and lower levels of stress while in the presence of nature. Yet, we spend most of our lives inside the distracting open office. But, bringing nature into the office requires a multisensory approach – one that utilizes sound, sight, and even touch.

  Humans are unable to block out distracting conversations because we’re hardwired to pay attention to dynamic sounds like speech, it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism  

The Next Generation of the Open Office

So how can companies apply nature to minimize distractions in the open office? At Poly, we believe in harnessing the power of nature in conjunction with intelligent software to help people concentrate and build workplaces around what really matters—the human experience. Using nature to tackle some of the greatest pain points being experienced by today’s open office employees is ambitious, but we believe the era of environmental enterprise technology is now.

Research has shown that when people are simply in the presence of nature-inspired elements, those elements can often increase productivity and creativity. This is what drove us to develop a unique, industry-first solution called Habitat Soundscaping. Announced in 2017, Habitat Soundscaping combines natural water sounds – like the sound of a flowing stream –with a visual connection, like in-office water walls or virtual displays of serene landscapes, to create a soothing sense of being outdoors, while reducing the distracting impact of nearby conversations.

Habitat Soundscaping aims to create a harmonious, multisensory experience that reduces the impact of distractions. However, we’ve taken this solution even further by using the power of software. Complex algorithms continuously monitor inputs from distraction sensors installed in the ceiling and adjust the independently controlled speakers to respond to the various pockets of conversation. Together, they actively work in real-time to continuously respond to the ever-changing levels of distraction in the open office, seamlessly maintaining perfect, natural harmony within the space.

Since its initial release, we’ve focused on continuing to improve our Habitat Soundscaping service to adapt to new employee pain points and to ensure we combat new noise-based distractions as they evolve. We’ve developed new, dynamic audio and visual themes that are more immersive and realistic, to provide employees with an ultra-realistic experience that’s more indicative of what you find in nature. We’ve also advanced our data and insight capabilities, including improving our digital heat map with greater detail and improved functionality, with a new multi-layer heat map that shows the magnitude of speech distraction, ambient noise levels, and how the system is responding to these pockets of conversation. Finally, acknowledging the importance of creating a holistic ecosystem that plays well with other technology and is vendor agnostic, we’ve released our first set of control APIs, allowing third parties to build systems with integrated controls for our Habitat Soundscaping System.

This is the next evolution of office design: intelligent soundscapes that dynamically adapt to your environment, creating the perfect balance between wellness and productivity. We know the open office isn’t perfect, but we have the technology to make it better. CIOs now have tools to help their teams reduce distractions and boost performance, enabling both greater collaboration and focus in the workplace.

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