Is it possible to create a workplace environment that supports the two very different work modes of team collaboration and individual focus work? If you approach workplace design from an experiential standpoint—going beyond the constraints of the physical space—I would argue that it’s possible and that it’s essential to the wellness of your workforce.

The latest trend in enterprise interior space design is the open floor plan. There are two key objectives associated with this trend: to promote effective collaboration and to increase workspace density. Nearly all organizations require collaboration to survive and flourish, and open floor plans allow team members to organically interact without the need for set meeting times or formal conference rooms. The drive to densify the workspace is borne of the high cost of real estate and the prevalence of hoteling, hot-desking, and remote working. Many employees simply don’t need a large, or even a dedicated, office space in order to be productive. In fact, the average square footage per office worker had decreased globally from 225 square feet in 2010 to only 151 square feet in 2017.

At Plantronics, we undertook this transformative journey several years ago, completely reimagining our campus while transitioning from a traditional collection of cube-walled offices to an open floor plan. The result: our campus looked and felt amazing. Nearly everyone loved the new sense of space, the beautiful contemporary furniture, and the thoughtful natural finishes.

However, we quickly discovered the downside of the open floor plan: the distractions associated with the cacophony of human speech. When you can understand what others around you are saying, you simply can’t ignore them. We were by no means the first organization to encounter this problem. According to a 2015 study by Oxford Economics, 99% of those surveyed reported their conversations were impaired by office sounds. In addition, 53% of employees said they were frustrated at work due to high levels of ambient noise. In the same Oxford Economics study, a whopping 61% of employees said that the ability to focus and work without interruptions was one of the key characteristics of an effective work environment, and they prioritized it well above other workplace amenities like free food—imagine that!

To combat noise, many companies have tried the old “ABC” method: Absorption, Blocking, and Covering. Absorption usually involves the installation of acoustic ceiling tiles, which is challenging in vast, high-ceilinged spaces. And in many cases, architects don’t want to hide beautiful and often eco-friendly materials like reclaimed wood behind synthetic tiles. Blocking usually involves strategically placing walls to literally block sound; this obviously flies in the face of creating an open floor plan in the first place. Covering, also known as “sound masking”, uses electronically generated sounds played over speakers to literally drown-out ambient noise. This solution has some very serious drawbacks: white noise utilized in traditional sound masking has been shown to cause fatigue and, in some cases, headaches—not at all what you want to inflict on your workforce.

To solve this problem at Plantronics, we designed a new kind of workspace.

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest distraction in the open workspace has to do with intelligibility of human speech. It’s very difficult for people not to listen to others’ conversations, especially when we can understand the words. We’re simply wired to listen for other humans talking. To counter this, we created a solution that utilizes natural sounds played at just the right frequency to make speech unintelligible. We didn’t try to cover the speech—that would have led to the same problems associated with sound masking. Instead, we used authentic, natural water sounds and tailored them to make speech difficult to understand. This works on two levels: rendering nearby conversations unintelligible while simultaneously appealing to the innate human love of nature, known as biophilia.

In a broader sense, biophilia feeds our human desire to establish and maintain a deep connection with nature. Even something as simple as looking at a photograph of a landscape can enhance cognitive function, elevate mood, and improve memory. In order to create a holistic experiential environment at Plantronics, we’ve taken a multisensory approach to our installations.

In addition to introducing water sounds to our spaces, we’ve also incorporated complementary visual elements, like motion graphics of babbling brooks and lush landscapes, as well as real physical waterfalls. These biophilic visuals work in concert with the “soundscape” to provide the very real benefits of nature in a way that is both immersive and convincing. The spaces truly deliver the experience of being in a natural setting.

Thanks to this approach, our open workspace is now optimized for diverse activities like team collaboration, individual focus work, and even presentations and sharing. And, these activities can and do occur in the same space at the same time. We have created an environment that plays a part in our associates’ desire to come to work, and they come ready to create, share, and innovate.

Even our own CEO has chosen the open workspace over a traditional walled office. Another very tangible benefit of our experiential workspace is that it helps us attract and retain the very best employees—no easy task given our close proximity to a large number of Silicon Valley companies competing for the very same talent.

At the beginning of this post, I asked the question, “Is it possible to create a workplace environment that supports the two very different work modes of team collaboration and individual focus work?”

With the right experiential design solution, incorporating a mix of biophilia and user-centered technology, the answer is a resounding YES, and we’ve proven it here at Plantronics.

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