The Nature of Soundscaping
There’s something about hearing a river flowing and birds singing as you take a leisurely stroll through a park on a sunny day that quells the mind. On the most hectic of days in the office, getting just 10 minutes to decompress outside offers a sense of relaxation that can make you immediately more productive when you return. Now imagine if you could bring that same sensation inside the office.
Evan Benway, Director of Product and Product Owner of Habitat Soundscaping by Plantronics, has solved that puzzle and created a revolutionary soundscaping system that integrates nature-inspired audio and visuals that have had a positive impact on the physical workplace.
Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your professional background and how you initially got into the field of soundscaping?
Benway: I got into this field by connecting several of my passions, one of which is conducting research. I came to Plantronics in order to research sound and the effects of acoustics on people working in open offices. This began as pure research, but as we began to publish our findings, it became clear that we were onto something that could be of use to others outside of Plantronics. This led me to product development, invention, and authoring over ten patents for the company along the way.
I’ve also been a life-long musician. Both my parents are classical musicians — I was the rebellious one and went for jazz. I’ve always had a huge passion for sound and found a way to combine that with my professional career, using user experience research to develop solutions to the problems related to acoustics in the built environments where we now spend the majority of our lives.
What initially sparked the concept behind Habitat Soundscaping and how were you and your team able to transform that concept into a viable business strategy?
Benway: It really started with some personal pain. Being a musician requires focus, as one learns to practice many hours a day in order to create something (hopefully) worth listening to. I essentially took that same approach to “knowledge work,” the type of work done by most service workers in the developed world and where there is a great desire to improve productivity. For me, that’s a pretty simple recipe: productivity is a function of time spent doing an activity with deep focus. What I found within the open offices which I was working in is that they did not support that focus. Looking around and learning more, it turned out that this wasn’t a problem that only I was having — it was the top problem for workplaces.
At Plantronics, we also experienced this problem. What was interesting to me about Plantronics was that this was a company with massive acoustical expertise and with acoustical engineers coming out of the woodwork. So I asked the question: if you were to intentionally design sound into the workplace — what would you design? What would it sound like? If you wanted to create a space that was optimal for productivity, focused work or collaboration, what would that sound like? What would it sound like if you wanted to create environments that don’t cause stress and bring about the cortisol response and all these physiological impacts that we now know modern offices have? Could you create an environment in which sound actually aides people and has therapeutic benefits?
Those were the types of questions that I started asking and that’s the ground in which Habitat Soundscaping was born.
How did the idea to integrate nature-inspired audio and visual components in the workplace initially come together? What was the driving force behind that decision?
Benway: First off, there are a few problems we know about when it comes to the sound of buildings. There’s a distraction issue where people are distracted by others in their space — we’ve known about that for a long time. Distraction isn’t a function of how loud someone is. In fact, a focus on reducing noise levels has caused many workplaces to become too quiet. What you end up with it the library effect — spaces so quiet that when someone says something, what they say is clearly intelligible and therefore highly distracting. This degree of quiet is also so unnatural that it can be uncomfortable.
There’s been a lot of research done on acoustics and how they impact people. Hearing is a primordial sense that evolved as a self-defense mechanism and is linked to our ability to survive in the types of environments in which Homo sapiens evolved. As a hunter-gatherer, being able to hear someone speak, even at a whisper, was tremendously advantageous for communication and cooperation. Fast-forward to today and that ability to pick up on speech can be pretty frustrating as a knowledge worker in an open office. It turns out that the types of sounds we find in our buildings, absolute quiet for example, signifies danger. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we do physiological measurements and we find that it creates the fight-or-flight response with people. It’s the same thing with loud air conditioning sounds or the variants of white noise that are sometimes artificially added to buildings.
Natural sound, water sounds, bird songs, when done right, those types of sounds have a profoundly positive impact on people. That shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve known for years that natural light and views of nature can really benefit people. The same thing applies to sound and natural sound has a profound benefit on people in terms of comfort, well-being and stress levels — but also in terms of cognitive functioning. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) found that natural water sounds will actually improve people’s performance scores in standard cognitive performance metrics. It’s a big deal. We wanted to see how we could bring that into the office.
One of the first experiments we conducted was playing water sounds in a workplace. We spent a bunch of time in our labs testing out different types of sounds across a broad sample of different workers and personalities. We found sounds that would work extremely well across a huge sample of people — sounds optimized for broad consumption. We played them in the workplace and only about five percent of people liked them, which was really frustrating because everyone in the lab liked them universally.
We conducted a parallel experiment in another office of ours, same sample group of just over 100 people, in a large open office area. We did the same thing. We put in a distributed speaker system, we played the same sounds, but we put in a floor-to-ceiling waterfall. The responses were completely different. It was unanimous, everyone liked it. Interestingly, no one picked up on the fact that we were doing anything with sound. We hadn’t told anyone what we were doing. You walk in, you see the waterfall, you hear the water sound and it all just makes sense.
What are the biggest challenges you see FMs facing when it comes to sound / noise in the workplace?
Benway: One of the challenges, frankly, is that the topic of acoustics has not been exciting for FMs. Who wants to talk about absorptive paneling and introducing white noise into a space? I think there’s been a lack of vision that has made it less appealing. Additionally, we tend to think with our eyes first. That’s really changing now that there is this massive recognition of the problem we’ve created.
A lot of conventional wisdom for FMs in terms of how to deal with sound has boiled down to the ABCs. The way the story goes is “A” put in absorption wherever you can — ceiling tiles, carpeting, cubes, all that. But when you think about what’s actually happening in the modern workplace, absorption is really on the decline. Now we see glass, wood, white boards, polished concrete floors. All of that is desirable for flexibility and collaboration, but it exacerbates the noise problem. There’s very good research that prospective employees are making decisions about where to work based on the appeal of the facilities. Millennials will simply not work in workplaces that have cubicles, so in the competition for top talent, the key focus for FMs is how to create workplaces that people want to work in.
The “B” of the ABCs is blocking sound wherever you can, putting up physical barriers to stop sound from bouncing around. Blocking is going the way of the dinosaur too. All the walls are coming down, and we are definitely not blocking sound in our spaces.
The “C” is cover, which refers to turning up the air conditioner or pumping in white noise via some type of sound masking system. FMs don’t want to turn everyone’s work environment into what sounds like an airplane cabin. That’s the situation FMs have been in, there haven’t been really good solutions and the problem has been getting worse.
With respect to soundscaping, how do you think the workplace will change as a result of increased awareness and understanding of that area over the next 5-10 years?
Benway: We know we’ve had absenteeism problems in the modern workplace, particularly in flexible workspaces. You give people the ability to work from somewhere else and they stop wanting to come into the workspace. I think it’s worth asking the question: what are we doing wrong with our built environment?
Real estate is the number-two expense, but the 10 percent spent on facilities is a pretty small number compared to the 80 percent spent on people. If FMs could make a tweak to what they’re spending on the built environment and if that brings about an increase in productivity, wellness and people coming into the workplace — it’s worth doing.