One Giant Leap
In the Netherlands, global headset manufacturer Plantronics is finding novel new ways to counter noise pollution in its new flagship smart workspace.
When Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo Lunar Module and onto the surface of the moon, he uttered the immortal words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” into a Plantronics headset. Few have an origin story as thrilling or as momentous. The organisation was formed in the early 1960s, when two pilots who were frustrated by the large and cumbersome flight deck audio equipment in their new, complex jetliners took it upon themselves to design smaller, lightweight headsets, and the Plantronics name has been inextricably linked to the aviation and aerospace industries ever since. Plantronics headsets not only aided the first moon landing but also helped guide the stranded astronauts of Apollo 13 safely back to Earth.
Today, however, the organisation has diversified and does most of its business in the corporate world, supplying call centres and office environments with its headsets. Paul Clark, Managing Director for Plantronics in Europe and Africa, says that he likes to think that the business has moved from “mission-critical applications” to business-critical collaboration”. As a global headset manufacturer, the company helps with the issues of communication and noise every single day – and these are significant problems. Data from the Leesman Index, in fact, shows that dissatisfaction with “noise levels” is the strongest likely indicator that a person’s workplace is inhibiting them from working productively. Clark says that his organisation’s own research backs this up, with a staggering 93% of office workers claiming to be adversely affected by the noise in their workplace, with a further 73% reporting that their employer takes no action to address the problem. Moreover, 61% of respondents from the same study said that they take matters into their own hands by listening to music and other audio through headphones.
According to Clark, these are problems that will only grow in stature with the inexorable rise of open-plan working. “The days of big offices, lots of floor space and dedicated desks for individuals are behind us,” he explains. “It is not that they no longer exist, but we are seeing more and more businesses move to open plan environments in an attempt to engender higher collaboration between employees and better utilisation of the floor space by bringing in flexible or smart working practices.” But these actions, Clark explains, are putting people in a “melting pot of noise”. So while open-plan environments are built with the intention of getting people to both spontaneously and purposefully interact, the noise that results is impacting the workers’ ability to perform other necessary work tasks.
In Plantronics’s new flagship office in Hoofddorp, a town that lies parallel to Holland’s Schiphol Airport, however, the workspace has been designed with a variety of these activities in mind – or what Clark describes as ‘the 4 Cs’: communication, collaboration, contemplation and concentration. “If you look at how any white-collar worker operates in a normal day, you can break it down into these four areas,” he says. The Hoofddorp building contains a blend of quieter areas, where employees can work without distraction, and formal and informal spaces for meetings. Clark says that the new workplace is a product of the organisation’s wholehearted embrace of smarter working some 6 years ago, when it introduced a communications technology platform that freed employees from their desks. “Plantronics is a collaborative environment,” says Clark. “Our people can work and communicate with their colleagues from wherever they are. They don’t need to be in an office to do that.”
To support these changes, the organisation has introduced a number of biophilic features into the environment that help people feel more comfortable and work more effectively, including the addition of more natural light and a plant wall. But the most interesting component of all is how Plantronics – an organisation that has spent its entire existence thinking about how to improve its customers’ communication – is combating the problem of noise within its own environment.
Clark says that the sound of running water, resembling a babbling brook, has been injected into the background at Hoofddorp as an “overlay to the general hubbub” of the office. “Sound propagates a fairly long way, so if two or three people are chatting and you are trying to concentrate this can easily cause a distraction,” says Clark. “With the biophilic noise, you may still hear people talking, but you can’t hear the detail of what they are talking about.” When Plantronics tested a similar sound-masking system for its smart office in Royal Wootton Bassett, the feedback showed that people were uncomfortable with an impalpable sound of running water. “By installing a range of water features in the centre of the floors in Hoofddorp,” Clark explains, “we have made a far more natural connection between the sight and sound of running water, therefore people respond to it in a much more natural fashion.”
For Clark, the office in Hoofddorp is the embodiment of his organisation’s vision of a modern workplace. And as for its new soundscape – well that’s one small step for Plantronics, one giant leap for acoustic design.