It involves a problem that nearly anyone in an open office environment can relate to; how to best do your work when there are so many distractions.
While distractions can take on many forms (e.g. pop-in visitors, notification ‘dings’, impromptu desk mtgs, over perfuminated co-worker, etc.) we’re going to drill into a single category this first round, sound.
How it started
We noticed a few scenarios that kept occurring in our day-to-day open-office life.
We all could probably tell of uncomfortable encounters with close-talkers, but in recent in-office meetings I found myself frustrated with soft-talkers. Sitting adjacent to my colleagues around our main conference table, I struggled to catch what they were saying. I first panicked a bit wondering, “Is this what happens to ears mid-thirties?” But after further observation, I noticed it happening back at our desks too. If there were people having a meeting somewhere in the office, everyone became a soft talker as to not disturb the others.
After moving into our open-office space, I began to hear comments from outside visitors about the quietness. The kind of quietness where they felt awkward walking in (cue crickets), feeling as if they might be interrupting us; or even worse, that our environment was just lacking energy. And as someone who cares much about brand experience, this feedback wasn’t good. It wasn’t just outsiders giving feedback on the silence, it started popping up internally too. The scenario when several people are out at meetings simultaneous is frequent, and the resulting quietness inside the office, some expressed, actually made it more difficult to work.
So the knee jerk solution to the “quiet periods” became background noise in the form of Pandora. In the morning, someone would come in, turn on the main conference TV and choose their favorite Pandora station. When someone else got tired of “rockin’-alternatives from the 90’s”, they’d get up and switch to “pop country hits” or “classical instrumental”. Or, they might simply just turn it off.
When someone would get a phone call, you’d see them stand up and walk out the front door. After a few minutes and the phone call ended, they’d come back in. At times when someone didn’t leave the office to make a phone call, you’d find them in the back corner behind a half wall that hides our printer and mess of office supplies. These weren’t necessarily all confidential calls, but people felt that they’d be a distraction to others working.
We know of course, we aren’t alone in these struggles. In fact, 53% of employees are disturbed by others when trying to focus and 42% use makeshift solutions to block out distractions in the workplace, as reported in the 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey by Gensler.
We want to know how we can manipulate sound in our open-floor plan to improve life at the office. We’re curious about the type, the quality, the volume, the frequency of the sounds that surround us every day as we work in our wide-open-zero-enclosures office.
And just like we did in science class, we’re starting this experiment by making a few hypotheses to test.
- If we have constant ambient noise, we’ll have a more positive and consistent brand experience (both external and internal)
- If we mix up designated sound zones, we’d improve control over our sound experiences, improve our focus opportunities, and clarify our communication levels to others in the office.
- If we create a visual / acoustic barrier near entry, we will improve brand experience for visitors and reduce drop-in distractions from focus work.
- If we create a movable visual/acoustic barrier between the conference area and one of our bench of desks we’ll improve the environment of meetings (sense of privacy, sound quality) and elevate the ability of the rest of the office to complete focus work and/or have conversations outside of the conference area.
The driving purpose behind this experiment is two fold; to elevate our own work output, brand experience, and office culture and to be more empathetic in the way we design spaces for our clients. Stay tuned for how the study unfolds.
To share your own ‘sound’ experiences in an open office, comment below or use the twitter hashtag #openofficeissues. Or if you want to make sure you don’t miss any in this series, click here to have them delivered to your inbox.