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Turn Down For What? The New Audio of the Open Workspace
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May 13, 2015

Turn Down For What? The New Audio of the Open Workspace

By TMCnet Special Guest
Jeff Rodman, Co-Founder and Chief Technical Evangelist at Polycom

The average consumer’s perspective on sound quality is largely shaped by their entertainment preferences. A user is as likely to evaluate a device's audio quality based on its beefy bass or its hip-hop "punch" as they are by inspecting a data sheet.

Audio quality in the workplace is something very different. In an increasingly video-conscious world, planning for sound is often an afterthought, leaving progress at risk when work is impacted by interruptions or poor audio quality. Yet robust enterprise audio, along with rock-solid enterprise video, is integral to business communications.  

Audio technology in the workplace needs a new look because the traditional closed-door office format is shifting to more open and collaborative workspaces. However, for all the creativity and innovation open offices can inspire, they also present numerous disturbances and distractions. Most of us have had conversations or conference calls turn sour because of background noise in the office. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In principle, an open office seems like it would be an effective workplace that encourages interaction. That would be nice, because interaction can fuel creativity, collaboration, autonomy and opportunities for learning.  When Citigroup piloted an early workspace initiative named CitiWorks, replacing assigned desks with shared “neighborhoods,” it was hailed by some for promoting transparency and fairness. But studies now reveal that open offices are often less productive. A 2013 study from Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear at the University of Sydney found that productivity drops substantially in open offices because of higher noise and lower privacy.

Effective sound management is one of the most important elements of a productive workspace. In traditional workspaces, we were accustomed to dealing with a bit of environmental noise, but the open workspace boosts existing noise while adding even more, in the form of nearby conversations. In these new environments, our old techniques to deal with unwanted sound often don't work so well, as demonstrated by studies like Kim/de Dear and others.

New Solutions for the New Noise

The workplace of the future is all about working when, where and how we need to. Whether working from a conventional office, a home office, or an open workspace, the office environment shouldn’t affect the quality of interaction. But while headsets can help you cut down background noise when you're listening on a conference call, the biggest problem remains: everyone on the far end of any audio or video call still hears every sound around you.  And even in open areas, space is shrinking, we have less room to spread out, and noise sources get pushed even closer to the microphone.

Fortunately, there are some innovative audio technologies that address these problems of the open workspace. Technologies such as "acoustic fencing," which create a virtual enclosure in open air, can reduce surrounding noise and intelligently cut out distracting conversations. Noises like nearby keyboard clicks and crinkling snack bags are extracted by solutions such as NoiseBlock, and individuals in open spaces become good conference-call citizens because of new background conversation-removing technologies such as "Acoustic Bubble."

Isolating unwanted sounds with advanced technolgy like these helps to restore focus to our work and collaboration, and can bring us closer to the bright early vision of open and distributed workspaces.  As workspaces continue to evolve and become even more diverse, so too will the solutions that allow us all a more free and collaborative spirit.

About the Author: Jeff Rodman is Co-Founder and Chief Technical Evangelist at Polycom (News - Alert).

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