The corporate landscape has changed dramatically from the days of rows of cubicles and muted color schemes. Open-office floor plans have proliferated in the workplace, and companies are moving into more aesthetically pleasing spaces. Many of these spaces are built with an abundance of glass, marble, granite, brick and even metal beams and ceilings, all designed to create the feel of a New York City loft, and to disguise the fact that it is, indeed, a workplace.
The open-office format has been created to provide today’s employees with an environment that fosters spontaneous, face-to-face communication, easier collaboration, less isolation and increased productivity. Intra-office communications have also been made more efficient with online conferencing services, instant messaging and mobile phones. The question is, has the focus on increased comfort and productivity actually become a hindrance?
Communications Challenge #1: In-Person Speech Intelligibility
The technology present during my elementary school days consisted of a chalkboard. Teachers generally had to project their voices, unaided, to a classroom of 40 to 50 students. The mouth is essentially a “horn,” with similar directional qualities. (If you’ve ever attended a seminar where the trainer spoke while writing on a whiteboard, you know what I mean.) Turning your head while speaking will adversely affect intelligibility for those seated away from where you are facing. Poor acoustics in the room will exacerbate the problem.
What happens if your boss suddenly tells you that you’ll be making a new-product presentation to the marketing, sales and executive teams, along with the board of directors? Your presentation is only as effective as the amount of information retained by attendees. If you’re trying to pitch a new idea or a new product, intelligibility is critical, and no quantity of charts and graphs on a screen will help you. Here are some things that actually will:
1. Talk to the AV professional at your company. (This might also be your IT professional.) Many modern corporations have integrated AV systems into their meeting rooms. Ask your technician which room has the best AV system. Have him or her show you, in advance, how to use the microphone system so that there are no surprises on presentation day. Use a head-worn microphone with a boom, if possible. That type of microphone will move with you, and the boom assures the mic stays close to your mouth, even when turning your head. Learn how to connect your laptop, as well.
2. Do a practice run. Book your chosen room, for about an hour, a day or two before the big presentation. Invite your boss and a few colleagues to watch you run through the presentation. Accept the honest feedback they provide. Ask them if they could hear every word.
Communications Challenge #2: Open-Office Floor Plans
Employees typically enjoy many aspects of an open-office floor plan; much of that enjoyment is social in nature. Being able to talk to, and interact with, coworkers from a desk or workspace is one. There’s also a feeling of being connected to your team in a tangible way that can’t be replicated by a videoconference or other mediated communication. The lack of floor-to-ceiling walls allows natural light to fill the room. Yet, that openness often presents challenges.
1. Lack of privacy: There are several circumstances in which some level of privacy is necessary, and they’re not just HR-related. A product manager could be working on an exciting new technology that he or she is not ready to announce to the sales team. Conducting a private phone call with a colleague in engineering can be difficult if everyone in the office is able to overhear it. And, conversations that are fine for other employees to hear might be privileged information that shouldn’t catch the ear of a visitor to the campus.
2. Distractions: You know the guy with multiple mobile devices that are all linked, and they all ding at every text, email, calendar event and task due? It’s distracting! So is the coworker who has the loud voice, or the one who is watching the mandatory HR video. They make it difficult for others to concentrate on their own phone conversations or training webinars.
3. Noise: The HVAC system, computers, copiers or any other equipment that’s running can add to the din inside an office and become distracting and, potentially, quite annoying.
Many of the problems in communication have to do with intelligibility, and modern corporate environments can make that difficult, at best. Buildings with a lot of hard surfaces are prone to reverberation and echo, both of which can degrade the clarity of a human voice while, simultaneously, in some cases, amplifying it. That effect is easy to experience in an international airport or a large gymnasium. Some major stadiums are constructed expressly to amplify the sound of the fans, in an effort to add excitement to the event. None of these scenarios is conducive to good corporate communications. Fortunately, there are solutions.
1. Acoustic Treatments: Aesthetically pleasing sound-absorbing panels can be custom-made to match the décor and color schemes of any office, and they are one of the best, most effective ways to reduce office noise, when they’re implemented correctly by an acoustician.
2. Sound-Masking Systems: Sound masking works by introducing white noise, similar to what you might hear from an air-conditioning vent, into the environment. It helps reduce distraction by “masking” voices with noise. Although such systems work well in relatively quiet offices, they are ineffective at reducing the noise level in reverberant call centers.
3. Quiet Spaces: For an open office to be a productive environment, companies might consider providing several quiet spaces that can be used for phone calls, videoconferencing and training.
4. AV Systems: A good AV system is critical, and it’s one of the best investments a company can make. Most corporations have employees who work remotely. A properly designed and installed AV system will be easy to use, sound great and assure your message is understood, regardless of whether you’re presenting to a group in your office or abroad.
Communications Challenge #3: Hard-Of-Hearing People
Assistive-listening systems are often overlooked in the workplace. Statistics show that about one in five people experiences measurable hearing loss. With the average retirement age increasing, 20 percent or more of the workforce could have difficulty hearing in challenging corporate listening environments. There are many systems available to suit any need.
- Radio frequency (RF) systems work by broadcasting audio to a receiver on the FM band. In the US, 72MHz and 217MHz are designated for assistive listening by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is a cost-effective method, and an unlimited number of receivers can be used in a system. RF systems are not encrypted or confidential, however.
- Infrared (IR) systems work by transmitting sound to IR receivers using infrared light. The sound quality is very good, with the added benefit of confidentiality, because the light does not penetrate walls. IR systems also work well in multiple-classroom situations where isolation between classrooms is necessary. IR systems can be a portable solution, but an audio systems integrator should be consulted for larger installations.
- Hearing-loop systems are the preferred method of assistive listening for those who have cochlear implants and telecoil-equipped hearing aids. They work by sending audio directly to a person’s hearing device via electromagnetic signal. That is typically a permanently installed solution. Once installed, however, it can last for many years.
- Wi-Fi systems send audio to a person’s smart device via a downloadable app. With more than two billion smartphones in use worldwide, this is becoming a very popular choice in assistive-listening solutions. Check your local Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations to see if compliance is necessary.
The ability to communicate clearly can help increase productivity by reducing the amount of time wasted on misunderstood requests and inaccurate task fulfillment. It can create smarter, better-informed employees by increasing retention from training. And, it can help create happier employees by making their workplace a better, more pleasant place.