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Open-office plans prompt noise-mitigation technology

If you do a Google search for "open offices," you'll find the results don't exactly paint a pretty picture. In fact, many of the search results vilify open-office plans. Here are some samples:

  • Is it time for the open-office floor plan to die?
  • The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.
  • Open-plan offices kill productivity, according to science.

Evidently, despite their ubiquity, open-office environments have issues. Open floor plans are often knocked for being noisy, which can sap worker productivity and concentration levels.

At the same time, open-office plans are touted for promoting collaboration among employees, as cubicle walls come down. About 70% of U.S. companies have some type of open floor plan, according to the International Facility Management Association.

Mitigating noise on both ends of the call

To combat open-office noise, end users could wear noise-cancelling headphones to help them concentrate on their work. Organizations are making sure employees in open offices have access to noise-cancellation headsets, according to Irwin Lazar, a unified communications (UC) analyst with Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

Organizations are looking at noise cancellation at both ends of a call for the sender and receiver. For example, noise-cancellation technology could block the transmission of background noise, and users could wear headphones to mitigate open-office din.

More than half of organizations have said open-office plans are changing the way they buy endpoints, according to Nemertes data. Additionally, more than 50% of organizations are aligning their headset purchases with work styles. Contact center agents, for example, might need a different headset than mobile workers.

"IT leaders are paying a lot more attention to headsets now," Lazar said. "They understand different people in different roles are going to have different needs."

Cisco gets into headset game

IT leaders are paying a lot more attention to headsets now.
Irwin LazarUC analyst, Nemertes Research

Nearly 60% of organizations are now using headsets, and 31% plan to increase their number of headsets over the next year, while 17% plan to decrease headsets, Nemertes found. Predominately, organizations are adopting more headsets because they're also rolling out more softphones.

Just last month, Cisco introduced a range of headsets for its IP phones and soft clients. In part, Cisco has marketed the headsets to help workers "stay focused in noisy environments." Cisco added the headsets are "ideal for people who work side by side in contact centers and open spaces." The move may be evidence that vendors are looking to capitalize on open-office plans.

The headsets are a new venture for Cisco, Lazar said, and indicate that UC vendors are starting to view headsets as a more strategic business move. Cisco also has partnerships with various headset-makers, including Jabra, Logitech, Plantronics and Sennheiser Communications.   

In 2015, the earphone and headphone market was worth $11.68 billion. That number is expected to reach $18.2 billion by 2023, according to a report by Global Market Insights Inc. Several factors are driving demand for headphones, including noise-cancellation features and growing acceptance in the corporate sector, the report found.

Natural environment meets open-office environment

While noise-cancellation headsets focus on helping individuals, Plantronics is also trying to address open-office noise on a larger scale. Plantronics introduced Habitat Soundscaping in July 2017. The acoustic management system blends sounds and visuals from nature in an open-office environment.

Habitat Soundscaping essentially brings nature's sounds indoors to mitigate distractive speech, which is the leading complaint of open workspaces, according to Plantronics. As part of a Habitat Soundscaping installation, speakers are installed to circulate sounds from nature. The sound of trickling water, in particular, can help dampen distracting speech, Plantronics said. Sensors can also detect changing noise levels in the office and adjust speaker volume accordingly.

For visuals, Habitat Soundscaping features digital skylights and windows. Ceiling-mounted and wall-mounted monitors display nature scenes to create a visual connection with the outdoors. Habitat Soundscaping also features waterfall structures. The system includes software that connects and controls the speakers, distraction sensors and visual displays.

The challenge for Plantronics is Habitat Soundscaping is considered a facilities or human resources purchase, because those departments usually decide on open-office plans, Lazar said. The IT department, which is perhaps more familiar with Plantronics, would not necessarily make the purchase.  

Plantronics' Habitat Soundscaping was a Best of Enterprise Connect finalist last month at the UC conference in Orlando, Fla. In the video above, find out more about the system. Other Best of Enterprise Connect finalists included Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, Polycom and TTEC. The award finalists usually reflect industry trends, innovation and evolution. Microsoft Teams won the top award.

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