We spend a lot of our lives indoors. It’s a situation serious enough to warrant new design trends, when you consider that research shows inviting a more natural setting into our working spaces boosts productivity by 8% and wellbeing by 13%. Now advances in technology are playing a big role in bringing the outside in.
We spend a lot of our lives indoors. In fact, according to the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, we spend 90 percent of our day inside. And for most of us, a lot of that time is spent at work, often in buildings that were not designed to facilitate well-being or any kind of natural elements. Yet we are a species that likes to be around nature – fresh air, greenery and natural elements make us feel relaxed and stress-free. Technology is starting to play a big role in rectifying this. It’s a situation serious enough to warrant new design trends. The idea is to make workers feel comfortable, alert and focused. It’s about mental health as much as physical conditions.
One component of this move to a more relaxed workplace is known as biophilic design. This is where nature in actuality or digital form is brought into the environment to ease stress and improve individuals’ health and wellbeing. Where it’s not practical to bring nature indoors, digital simulations can be substituted. Digital displays in a ceiling can show a canopy of trees and the sky, even in an inner-city office.
This biophilic technology is the wave of the future, and technology is playing a big role in its development. One American company began incorporating biophilic elements into its workplace in order to solve a noise problem and created a new system in the process. This system revolutionized their workplace and may be a common workplace feature in the future.
Necessity: the mother of invention
Plantronics was founded in 1961 in Santa Cruz, California. It developed the first light-weight headset for pilots in the aviation industry, and Plantronics headsets were used by astronauts on the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions.
A few years ago, the Plantronics head office transitioned to an open plan model. But staff were soon complaining about noise levels, and particularly how difficult it was to work with people having conversations and taking phone calls around them. Looking for a way to reduce this kind of distraction, management eventually developed the system now known as Habitat Soundscaping.
Marcus Rose, Habitat Soundscaping Country Manager ANZ, takes up the story.
“Habitat Soundscaping was developed in-house to fix noise and distraction issues at our head office in Santa Cruz. The place was bright and beautiful, but within a couple of months, we were getting a lot of complaints about the main open-plan collaboration area. There was a lack of privacy and people weren’t comfortable taking phone calls there. They were getting distracted and the noise was a big complaint.”
Plantronics initially investigated using traditional sound masking systems, which involved injecting white noise into the environment through hidden speakers.
White noise is a steady static-like hiss that was once thought to be a good solution for masking unwanted sounds in the environment.
“Traditional sound masking broadcasts sound from speakers, introducing more sound into an area, which reduces the intelligibility of speech,” Rose says. “This makes it harder to overhear other people’s conversations, which in theory is less distracting.”
However, a lot of staff found the noise annoying, and some began complaining about fatigue. Rose says subsequent research by the company revealed that white noise can cause fatigue and even headaches – definitely not the way of the future.
Beyond white noise: Turning to nature
When Plantronics looked at other ways to solve the problem, they came across research that suggested natural sounds were as good as white noise at masking sound, but didn’t have the negative side effects. There was also suggestion that using the sound of nature had a calming effect and could actually improve health, wellbeing and productivity of individuals within earshot.
How Habitat Soundscaping works
Today, many open plan workspaces accommodate numerous type of working zones on each floor whether that be busy collaboration areas or quiet focus zones. Therefore, Plantronics realised they needed a system that was able to detect this activity and associated noise levels and adapt the system accordingly. So Habitat Soundscaping monitors noise levels and specifically identifies distracting noise such as speech through distraction sensors in the ceiling as it plays the sound of water. Then it adapts the sound level in real time depending on how quiet or loud different spaces are.
“For example, if two people were having a conversation in an open plan office, the system detects this and gradually increases the sound around them in order to protect the adjacent individuals. This dramatically reduces the intelligibility of their speech which is the main culprit for distractions in the workplace.” Rose explains.
Apart from sound, it’s also helpful for people to connect what’s heard with a visual. Having a waterfall in the office as the ‘source’ of the sound helps people relax even more. While an actual water feature can be installed, there is an option to have a low maintenance, plug and play waterfall that is self-contained.
Alternatively, there are digital options, screens that can be installed in the ceiling or as a window, with different nature-inspired themes available through the user interface such as running streams, rain etc.
Subtlety the key to the future
Rose says that especially from a sound point of view, subtlety is key. “You want the sound to be subtle enough so that people don’t notice it, but it’s enough to dampen distracting sound.”
He gives the example of the famous Salesforce lobby waterfall in San Francisco with its huge digital waterfall along the lobby wall.
“It looks great, but to make the sound match the waterfall would be excessive. You have to have the sound at a reasonable level.”
Major US companies are already on board, including Coretrust. CEO Thomas S. Ricci says Habitat Soundscaping helps show tenants how to create a “comfortable, enticing, collaborative work environment that will engage today’s generation thus allowing us to significantly differentiate our real estate offerings to our customers.”
Meanwhile, Microsoft has installed the system at the US headquarters and are currently evaluating it.
“Because we’re spending so much of our time indoors now, anything we can do to help people feel better in the built environment is going to be a huge benefit,” says Rose.
“Biophilic technology reproduces the sights and sounds of nature in the indoor environment. It puts people at ease and makes them feel more comfortable in that space. It’s a growing trend.”
Leveraging tech in the future
Our love of nature, the way it puts us at our ease and relaxes us, opens up possibilities for increased technology in the corporate world that go beyond current trends for conference room screens and voice-enabled cognitive rooms. AV technology can now harnesses the power of nature itself to bring flowing water, rain and trees into the places where we work.
Systems like Habitat Soundscaping not only achieves this, but also addresses the number one complaint in open-plan workspaces – Noise and Distraction. By digitising natural sounds and images with today’s high-resolution 4K content and displays, a new era of workplace harmony is dawning.