IT chiefs are typically tasked with contributing to business productivity. This can often include adopting technologies from cloud computing and collaboration to mobility and apps like Office 365. But have you ever considered sound control to be a productivity builder – especially in today’s open-plan offices? 

When open workplace plans began replacing cubicle farms in the 1990s, they were touted as collaboration incubators. The removal of physical barriers that separate employees was intended to encourage mobility and communication, leading to increased collaboration within and among teams to drive innovation.

Missing from the conversation was the concept’s Achilles heel: these environments magnify distractions — especially noise. While some users thrive amid the buzz of an open-office beehive, others struggle to filter out distractions, hampering their concentration and productivity.

“Employees have good collaboration technology at their disposal, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like working in these environments,” says Rich Costello, an IDC analyst. “They can see and hear everything going on around them, and that’s distracting.”

In a 2013 global study conducted by the University of Sydney, nearly 50 percent of employees in open offices cited the lack of sound privacy as their biggest frustration.

“A primary benefit of ‘smarter working’ is that it helps employees collaborate,” says Chris Thompson, vice president of enterprise product marketing at Plantronics. “But too much disruption can start to negate that benefit, and noise is a primary cause of disruption.”

Let the Workforce Lead

At one time considered the epitome of collaboration, innovation and coolness, open offices – which eliminate room dividers, cublicle rows and private offices while incorporating occupancy plans without walls – have received some pushback as of late. The problem is that staffers cannot escape the primary issue associated with the open office concept – noise.

“It’s a mistake to treat open collaborative spaces as warehouses with workstations as far as the eye can see,” says Chris Hood, managing director for occupancy services at CBRE Group, a global real estate services provider headquartered in Los Angeles. “Contemporary workspaces that incorporate a range of space types, and allow employees to move freely between them using mobile technologies, significantly improve work satisfaction.”

Gaining popularity, for example, are open offices with “neighborhoods”—small clusters of workstations designated for specific teams. In this model, each neighborhood is supported by alternative spaces, such as “office-for-a-day” and other private work options, Hood says.

Though situated in an open area, a cluster gives team members, as well as coworkers outside the team, a sense of structural boundaries. This enables legal teams, human resources and similarly sensitive departments to be part of a collaborative environment while maintaining an invisible line of demarcation that discourages high traffic.

Lastly, according to a study by CBRE, organizations see a 10-to-15 percent increase in employee satisfaction levels when they allow users to self-select their work location, versus those that don’t offer any choice.

Walking the Talk

Based on the extensive knowledge it has built by developing state-of-the-art communication solutions and interacting with customers across industry, Plantronics transformed its own headquarters in Santa Cruz, Calif., into a model of smarter working. The model accommodates where and how users work and strives to optimize their communication and collaboration experience across locations.

Physical workspace: Plantronics designed a workplace that complements its open floor plan with various private workspace options for situations that call for heightened concentration.

Environmental noise masking: While many modern workplaces use masking techniques such as white noise to drown out disruptive sounds, these can cause fatigue. Plantronics uses water sounds — both in the form of actual waterfalls placed throughout the building and through audio transmitted from equipment built into office ceilings. Why water? “It’s constantly changing, so it’s not fatiguing, and its frequency makes voice much less intelligible, making it easier for people to tune out conversation,” says Chris Thompson, vice president of enterprise product marketing at Plantronics.

Flexible work options enabled by mobile technologies: Plantronics recognizes that users don’t have to be in the office to work effectively. While some would rather work onsite, others work better in alternate locations or when they can work in a mix. “With smart working technologies such as WebEx or Skype for Business, you can provide employees with a full office experience wherever they are,” Thompson adds.

The Ears Have It

Beyond flexible office designs, smarter working is about deploying technologies that match a user’s work style and amplify its strengths, Thompson says. In open environments, such technologies include collaboration platforms, next-generation wireless infrastructure, sound masking and advanced headsets suited to different needs.

To optimize the user experience for an increasingly mobile workforce, for instance, Plantronics offers the Voyager Focus UC Stereo Bluetooth headset. The sophisticated headset seamlessly connects to various devices, integrates with popular collaboration applications and allows users a wide range of movement while participating in calls or enjoying music.

“It’s designed for somebody who’s more mobile and typically uses multiple devices — a PC, a mobile phone, a telepresence unit — on a daily basis,” Thompson says. As its name suggests, the Voyager product enables users to fully concentrate, whether they working on individual projects or leading a collaborative session. Using active noise cancellation technology, the headset analyzes ambient sound and cancels it so it can’t distract users from the task at hand. Further, it cancels external noise that would otherwise get introduced through a user’s headset microphone into a collaborative session, distracting others.

Depending on the industry, reducing transmission noise can be critical. “Financial services, healthcare and similar organizations must take extraordinary measures to ensure transmit noise, aka eavesdropping, isn’t introduced into a call,” Thompson says.

Ultimately, the success of open collaborative environments requires that organizations understand their different user types, how they communicate and the technologies that accommodate their work style. Other common methods for general noise masking include the wearing of ear buds or headphones or piping white noise or other natural sounds into the office.

Learn more about how mobility increases productivity, reduces costs and serves employees and customers both in the office and out in the field.