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This article was contributed by Evan Benway & Jonathan Chen from Plantronics.

When presented with the opportunity to spend their day indoors or in nature, most individuals would choose the latter. We know that our fundamental attraction to nature is defined by the positive impact nature has on our personal wellbeing, happiness, and restoration. This innate tendency is known as biophilia, literally “love of life,” which helps explain why humans have a profoundly positive response to natural light and interior designs inspired by nature.

Yet how much of our lives do we actually spend in nature? According to research from the US Environmental Protection Agency, we now spend 87% of our lives indoors. And another 6% in the car. That leaves just 7% spent outdoors. We dream of a restorative natural environment, yet we spend our lives at home, in vehicles, and working in offices. The built environment has become our habitat.

We ought to pay special attention to the modern workplace, as that is where we spend most of our waking hours. It is where a single design concept has come to dominate: the open office. According to the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), 70% of Americans now work out of open-plan offices. One hears a great deal about the increased collaboration, information-sharing, and productivity the barrier-free office is meant to enable, but one facet of the open office is clear: it has saved companies massive amounts of money on real estate. By packing more people into smaller spaces, companies economize on their second largest cost (the first being their employees). Further, office “densification” is a global phenomenon. An international survey by CoreNet Global demonstrated a precipitous drop in square footage per office worker from 225 square feet in 2010 to 150 square feet in 2017.

Unfortunately, it’s not so clear that the open office is delivering on its promise of increased collaboration. According to research by Gensler, the world’s largest architecture firm, time spent collaborating is actually down by 20% in the new collaborative office, while time spent focusing has increased by 13%, as workers struggle to get their work done out in the open.

Other than cost savings, this inability to focus is the most clearly-established consequence of modern workspace design. Additionally, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment surveyed over 65,000 people in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia and found that speech distraction was the top complaint.

This may be because our primordial sense of hearing is ill-adapted to the acoustics of the open office. Our hearing is omnidirectional, always on, and especially attuned to dynamic sounds – sounds that leap above the noise floor. We are also especially sensitive to human speech, even at a whisper.

What worked great for hunter gatherers is driving “knowledge workers” nuts. Our exceptional ability to pick up on human speech also means we are unable to ignore it and do our work.

It interferes with exactly the type of cognitive tasks drawn upon by knowledge workers, such as reading, quantitative reasoning, and accessing working memory. As research from the University of California, Irvine demonstrates, attempting to concentrate in the presence of such distraction causes stress, and the associated host of psychological and physiological ailments.

In the age of open corporate environments, how have employees attempted to cope with this issue? According to Gensler, 42% of workers have taken matters into their own hands by walling themselves off from the rest of the office with active noise canceling headphones, and listening to music or the sounds of a bustling café. Perhaps worst of all, some have turned to pseudo-random noise such as white noise and pink noise (go to www.simplynoise.com to listen to these sounds), which while capable of covering up distracting speech, can also cause stress, annoyance and anger. [i] Ironically, to be productive in an open office, one must isolate themselves from the rest of their peers – defeating the original purpose of the barrier-free design.

A market saturated by a multitude of solutions that only partially solve the office noise problem implies that a different approach must be taken. We have known for years that natural light and views of nature can profoundly benefit humans. [ii] [iii] We are now learning that the same applies to sound. In a breakthrough study in 2011, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health discovered that a natural spring water sound could function as a “speech masker,” covering up distracting speech, and that it was subjectively preferred to other sounds.

This was confirmed by research from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) demonstrating that natural sounds are preferred to typical office acoustics. In 2015, the researchers at RPI additionally found that subjects given cognitively-demanding tasks in the presence of sound saw their productivity scores remain higher over time in the presence of a natural water sound. Even compared to silence, the water sounds had a buoying effect, lifting up the cognitive abilities of the test subjects.

Given these assumptions, we know that completely silent buildings are not ideal, and they certainly don’t fare well once distracting speech is introduced. We also know that “white” or “pink” noise (think airplane cabin noise) is fatiguing, and we know that natural sounds can be tremendously beneficial.

The culmination of our research and development efforts led Plantronics to build what it believes to be the next critical evolution in office design; living, breathing, intelligent, biophilic soundscapes, attuned to the psychological and physiological needs of the building’s inhabitants that adapt as the acoustics of the office change.

The Habitat Soundscaping solution is an intelligent multisensory experience that uses natural sounds and complementary visuals to dynamically respond to the ever-changing noise and distracting speech in today’s workplace. The result is an environment that fosters personal concentration and team collaboration, satisfies people’s innate need to feel closer to nature, and helps relieve workplace fatigue and stress. The open office becomes a space where people want to work, leaving them feeling energized and ready to think bigger, and more freely.

[i] Quarto, T., Blasi, G., Pallesen, K. J., Bertolino, A., Brattico, E. “Implicit Processing of Visual Emotions Is Affected by Sound-Induced Affective States and Individual Affective Traits” PLOS ONE, 2014

[ii] Ulrich, R. S. “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery” Science, Vol. 224. 1984.

[iii] Walch, Jeffrey M., Bruce S. Rabin, Richard Day, Jessica N. Williams, Krissy Choi, and James D. Kang. “The Effect of Sunlight on Postoperative Analgesic Medication Use.” Psychosomatic Medicine 67:156-163. 2005.