“Corporate accounts payable, Amena speaking.”
Such was one expression which Peter Gibbons, lead character in the 1999 classic Office Space, heard non-stop as his colleague in a neighbouring cubicle received a continuous flow of incoming calls.
For Gibbons, this was not the only distraction. Another neighbouring colleague, Milton, had been granted permission to listen to his radio between 9am and 11am ‘at a reasonable volume’. When Gibbons made a mistake, eight bosses came to his cubicle – one of many in rows of individual partitioned workspaces – to tell him.
Granted, Gibbons’ frustrations were played up for the movie.
When it comes to noise, however, many workers today face similar challenges. In a worldwide survey of more than 5,000 office staff undertaken by Future Workplace and commissioned by unified communications company Plantronics Inc. (“Poly”) (NYSE: PLT), almost all of the Australian and New Zealand (ANZ) workers who took part reported being distracted by noise in the course of their work. According to the survey, more than one in ten ANZ workers are ‘always’ distracted and almost three in ten are distracted ‘very often’. All up, 94 percent have experienced distraction as a result of colleagues talking nearby whilst 93 percent and 66 percent respectively have been distracted by co-workers talking loudly on the phone or eating.
This matters. Of those ANZ employees surveyed, just over half (51 percent) say that distractions in an open office environment make it difficult to listen, be heard on calls and to focus on their tasks. Almost all (93 percent) feel frustrated, at least occasionally, due to distractions during a phone call or video call. Nearly one quarter (23 percent) have not found an effective solution. Almost three in four say they would work in the office more – and be more productive – if employers did more to reduce workplace noise.
Andy Hurt, Managing Director of Poly Australia and New Zealand, said the survey revealed two interesting observations.
First, both the impact which noise has on productivity and how workers manage noise related distractions differs according to the age and demographic profile of the workers involved. Within younger generations such as Millennials (born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s) and Generation Z (born from the mid-1990s up until around 2015), a significant number are comfortable working with headsets, working with background music or sitting within a collaboration area with a laptop. For many baby boomers, however, operating under such conditions does not come easily or naturally.
This is borne out in the survey results. Amongst ANZ workers, 52 percent of Generation Z respondents said they are most productive when working around noise or talking with others. By contrast, 60 percent of baby boomers prefer quieter surrounds. Compared with their Generation Z counterparts, baby boomers were more than three times less likely to have found an effective solution to noise distraction (common solutions identified include using headphones and moving to quieter spaces).
With this in mind, Hurt says it is important to think about how spaces can be adapted to suit different worker demographics and can be tailored to suit individual preferences. Headsets, for example, range from single ear sets to full noise cancelling ones. Telephone arrangements can be varied so that workers do not always have to have their phone on the right of their desktop.
When doing this, Hurt says it is also important to think about how the space will be used. Suitable arrangements for sales environments, for example, may differ from those which are appropriate for finance workspaces.
As well, managers need to be flexible and avoid chaining workers to individual workstations. This involves managing output rather than hours spent at desks.
Second, Hurt says a range of technology solutions are emerging. Soundscaping can lower the overall level of noise in a large office area. New systems are being offered which use natural sounds such as rivers or water rather than ‘white noise’ to blot out surrounding noise distractions.
In Poly’s own case, Plantronics has introduced a Habitat system which combines sight, sound and science in a way which is inspired by nature. The system starts with ambient noise based around a combination of water and other natural sounds. These are then transformed into a multi-sensory experience through a waterscape architectural feature. This is combined with a soundscaping system that monitors workplace acoustics and adjusts speaker volume according to changing conversation levels. As conversations happen, the system shields all but immediate areas from increases in acoustic levels.
As these technologies gain traction, Hurt says IT managers should be included in conversations about work environments so as to enable such solutions to be designed into new builds and refurbishments.
Australian office workers are being subject to significant noise distraction.
With new technology and flexible management, companies can help their workers to cope.