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Hearing Voices


Image: Asier -
The office where I work has gotten crowded. We’re a satellite office of a corporate division whose main facilities are in London and San Francisco. Our little corner of the world, in suburban Chicago, used to be home base for about a dozen people, of whom no more than 6 or 8 would be in the office on any given day—the rest working from home or the road. Over the past few months, we’ve added staff, to the point where almost every day will have at least 10 people in the office, and we can get as high as 17.
Though these are all relatively small numbers, it’s surprising how different the place feels. At our smaller occupancy, there could be a straight hour or more of virtual silence—everyone working heads-down, nobody on a phone call or chatting with anyone else. Now, with the office at full strength, there’s a continuous buzz. There’s also a shortage of walled spaces to meet or have a private call. (The office suite is just a big open room whose workstations are separated by below-eye-level partitions.) It can be hard to get work done.
This blog post from Poly offers some statistics that take apart exactly what’s happening when your open office is full of people talking all the time: “When you can understand what others around you are saying, you simply can’t ignore them…. According to a 2015 study by Oxford Economics, 99% of those surveyed reported their conversations were impaired by office sounds.”
Other people talking is just about the most distracting sound, the blog points out: “It’s very difficult for people not to listen to others’ conversations, especially when we can understand the words. We’re simply wired to listen for other humans talking.”
Plantronics, which acquired Polycom last year to become Poly, was all about audio technology. (The famous “wall of ears” at the company HQ is used to test optimal fit for headset designs). And so two years ago, the company introduced a product called Habitat Soundscaping. The technology, according to the Poly blog, “utilizes natural sounds played at just the right frequency to make speech unintelligible. We didn’t try to cover the speech…. Instead, we used authentic, natural water sounds and tailored them to make speech difficult to understand. This works on two levels: rendering nearby conversations unintelligible while simultaneously appealing to the innate human love of nature, known as biophilia.”
This all sounds great. In practice, it’s hard for me to imagine offices like ours being the beneficiary of such technology anytime soon. For example, it’s been difficult to get enterprises to invest in HD audio-enabled devices, even as everyone acknowledges that the audio experience on conference calls and cellular calls is uneven at best and non-functional at worst. For as important as sound is to communications, the solutions to bad audio seem to be the least-sophisticated sorts of workarounds: If someone’s sound is bad on a conference call, you just keep shouting, “You’re breaking up…” until they either do something to figure out what’s wrong on their end, or they disconnect and reconnect. If the office is noisy and every private room is taken, you grab your cell phone and head for the corridor or your car or wherever, and hope you have a good enough connection there and don’t have to take notes.
Even video experts will tell you that the most important part of a video call is the audio stream. You can keep up the communication if the picture goes out, but watching someone talk and not hearing what they say—that’s a pretty useless exercise.
So as we think about how to make open offices more tolerable and remote communications more effective, as much as we focus on building huddle rooms or explaining best practices for lighting your home office for video, we should be thinking about just making the experience of hearing—and not hearing—more effective in the work environments of today.