The Open Office Phenomenon

The open office is visually stunning and irrefutably popular. As companies strive to create better workspaces for their employees, they often favor the open office design. At first glance, open offices seem beneficial, promising to save thousands of real estate dollars and foster an environment for productive, collaborative work.

However, as many workers are now painfully aware, open offices aren’t living up to the hype. Noise and other distractions are more rampant and intrusive than ever before. In fact, a study out of the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley that surveyed over 63,000 respondents from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, Mexico, and Africa found that speech distractions were among the top complaints in open office layouts.

Noise distractions are further intensified by the inherent design of open offices. A 2014 CoreNet Global survey reported that the average square footage per worker dropped from 225 square feet in 2010 to 151 square feet in 2017, with personal workspace steadily decreasing at a rate of 9.25 square feet per worker per year. As companies tear down walls and private offices in favor of communal desks and “collaborative” spaces, employees are losing their privacy and experiencing a greater number of unwelcomed office conversations, conference calls, keyboard clacking, and other distracting noises.

open office

Modern-day office spaces often include open workplace design with flexible workstations, huddle spaces, and contemporary design.

Global Trends

About six years ago, my company jumped feet-first into this collaborative new way of working and transformed Poly’s Santa Cruz Headquarters into a modern, open office layout—and we quickly came to understand the challenges of actually working in the open office environment. Despite the refreshing new office look, our associates found they were collaborating less, were more distracted, and felt less productive than ever before. How could an office designed for collaboration create such intense dissatisfaction?

This paradox compelled us to better understand open office dynamics. In June of 2016, we partnered with global research firm Oxford Economics to publish “When the Walls Come Down”—a report that surveyed over 1,200 senior executives and non-executive associates from industries around the world. What we found confirmed our suspicion: office noise optimization is one of the most important factors in an employee’s preferred work environment. Workers rated “the ability to focus and work without interruptions” are  more important than conventional perks like office amenities (free food, daycare) or personal space. It turns out the modern-day workplace’s new design introduced a new problem: noise pollution.

Sound Distraction

Human beings have a well-adapted sense of hearing and are particularly sensitive to certain sounds that may pose a threat, especially dynamic sounds. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism that we cannot turn off. And as it turns out, the most dynamic sound in the modern office is human speech; we literally cannot help being distracted by it.

Knowing this, we dove into the realm of psychoacoustics—the science of sound perception and our response to sound—in a sponsored effort with Terrapin Bright Green. Sound levels and sound spectrum are only partially responsible for how we interpret an acoustic experience. Imagine you are at a cocktail party; you can easily focus on conversations near you, but have a hard time trying to focus on conversations on the other side of the room. In contrast, if you are in a quiet library, your mind will easily pick up on a conversation happening across the room. At the cocktail party, your mind allows you to focus on the conversation you attach the most importance to. Without the presence of a closer and more important conversation, your mind naturally focuses on the next dynamic noise, which is likely the next conversation. We are unable to block out distracting conversations because we are hardwired to pay attention to them. While this is a great evolutionary trait for outdoor survival, it is not so great in the open office.

In addition to being bad for people, noise pollution is also bad for business. In 2018, we partnered with Oxford Economics again and found that millennials are particularly annoyed by office noise, and people in the noisiest offices are most likely to say they plan to leave their job within the next six months. As competition for talent intensifies, companies that have solved the noise distraction problem will have the advantage.

The Biophilic Hypothesis

Our primordial senses have a strong affinity for the elements of nature – something known as the biophilic hypothesis. Research shows that simply being in the presence of nature-inspired elements can have powerful impacts on wellbeing, creativity, and productivity. Yet despite this innate human desire to connect with nature, we’re inside most of the time. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 87 percent of the day indoors and spends nearly as much time in the car (6 percent) as outside (7 percent).

Bringing nature inside has long been the ambition of many architects, designers, and engineers. In fact, biophilic design is a design principle that works to incorporate the benefits between linking nature and humans in the built environment. You can see many examples of this in modern office design, including living walls, natural color tones and patterns, and diffused lighting.

biophilic design

Biophilic design elements, such as this living wall, are common in modern offices.

In the modern office, biophilic design has primarily been applied to what we can see but omits the other senses we need to fully complete the experience. Let’s do a brief exercise. Close your eyes for a moment and transport yourself a place where you feel most relaxed, most comfortable, and most at peace. What did you see? If you are like most people that participate in this exercise, you were likely outdoors near a lake or on a beach. Now recall the details…maybe you heard the sound of a babbling brook or smelled fresh flowers in the air. Wouldn’t it be great to bring some of this to the place where we currently spend all of our time? Bringing nature into the office requires a multisensory approach; the more senses that are engaged, the more believable the experience is to our subconscious mind.

While biophilia in the open office might be a great conversation starter, does it really have an impact on the creativity and well-being of people in a normal office setting? We partnered with True Impact, a Neuroscience research firm, to find out. A group of test participants were asked to perform an open essay writing task in both a controlled environment with traditional office noises and in a biophilic office space with the sights and sounds of nature. The participant’s brain reactions were recorded using electroencephalography (big science word for EEG) and Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Overall, we found that environments with the sights and sounds of nature abated distractions. With an improved ability to focus, participants exhibited slightly greater emotional intensity, memory performance and better essay writing quality, including a more descriptive style and more rare words used. Neural data also showed a significant decrease in cognitive load. This indicates ease of comprehension and the result was an improvement in the overall quality of the essay. In this initial research, there was a strong link between the presence of biophilic elements and the impact on well-being, creativity, and productivity.

The Natural Antidote

So far this all sounds great, but what does all this biophilia have to do with distractions in the open office? As it turns out, there is a connection between the sounds of water and how our internal psychoacoustics perceive sound. We learned that natural water sounds—a stream running through the redwoods or gently crashing waves on the shore—are very effective at masking speech, even when compared to the more traditional method of using artificial broadband noises (such as pink noise). The benefits of these natural sounds are further amplified when tied to a visual counterpart, which provides additional sensory stimulation and a stronger immersion factor.

A New Era

As veterans in the audio communications industry, we started to explore solutions that could be applied to our own workspaces. First, systems we use, dubbed, sound masking systems, relied on the continuous dispersion of artificial broadband noises (i.e., white or pink noise) to drown out office cacophony for the entirety of the workday. The reception was mixed: some associates were tolerant of the artificial noise introduced into the office, but others saw it as an intrusive sound that negatively impacted their productivity. External research also revealed that prolonged exposure to artificial broadband noises is often associated with an increase in the body’s stress response. Exposing our employees to this type of technology was the last thing we wanted to do!

The culmination of all this research has led me to believe in one thing, using the power of nature will enable us to build workplaces around what really matters—the human experience. Using biophilia to solve the greatest threat to the open office is likely one of the more ambitious ideas out there, and I believe a new era of environmental enterprise technology is here. Biophilic technology—using nature-inspired sounds and visuals that mitigate office noise and simultaneously optimize employee well-being—will become the de-facto solution for creating the productive, collaborative workspaces open offices were intended to be. Ultimately, we all have the same mission: to build a peaceful space where collaboration and focus can happen at the same place, at the same time. Biophilic technology is the link that will make our mission a reality.

open office

Example of multisensory biophilic design using waterfall feature.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Sound & Communications.