A "noise epidemic" is threatening productivity in open plan offices, according to a new global study.
That might be news to the rest of us but not to Blair McKolskey, chief executive of design research company PLN Group who, among other things, produce sound-deadening office furniture employing the new science of nanotechnology and nanofibres.
The survey, which questioned executives and employees from the US, the UK, Germany, India, China Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, showed that only 1 per cent of employees say they are able to block out noise and distraction in the office, down from 20 per cent in the same survey held in 2015.
That led the study, held by Oxford Economics, to conclude that "the resultant noise pollution of the open office is reaching epidemic levels".
It's backed up by others – a 2012 Hong Kong survey of 38 offices found sound was a principal factor affecting productivity; a 2008 Australasian survey showed employees face a multitude of problems such as loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, health issues, overstimulation and low job satisfaction in an open plan work environment.
But McKolskey – whose relationship with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) and Callaghan Innovation has helped launch the company onto an international stage with its pioneering use of nanofibers and innovative design – says the open-plan office is here to stay.
Watch: PLN's case study
"Open plan working is not going away," he says. "It's too important. Companies want open offices because they encourage collaboration – and that isn't just communication, as a lot of people think. It's when one individual partners with another individual or more, and come up with something they could not have developed alone.
"That's the big pay-off for businesses – that's where they get the creative magic, the chemistry that can make a huge difference to them. If you put up a whole lot of obstructive spaces, they discourage that kind of collaboration and you find people revert to things like sending emails instead."
So why are some open plan offices unproductive?
Because of sound, says McKolskey: "It's not noise so much as what we call audibility. The number one disruption is speech noise – so the key isn't to remove sound but to reduce its impact. If words can't be understood, the brain doesn't focus on trying to comprehend them."
On hearing McKolskey's plans and ambitions, the ATEED team connected PLN to Auckland's Revolution Fibres, a company specialising in nanofibres, which PLN has incorporated into the groundbreaking, sound-deadening office furniture.
Nanofibres are invisible to the naked eye and can be layered in their millions – but still produce a lightweight fabric which absorbs sound.
"What happens with a sound wave is that, when it passes over fabric made from nanofibres, the energy is converted into kinetic energy; vibrates and is absorbed," says McKolskey.
"So we have a design conundrum – people need to be close together to collaborate and share their knowledge but they also need to be able to focus on their various tasks." The ideal, he says, is a 60/40 collaboration/focus ratio.
The design solutions needed to create that ideal are often more expensive and McKolskey says many companies dial back the expenditure: "Economics trump design quite a bit, unfortunately, because what we are talking about is very hard to measure and to express as a tangible benefit. There are a lot of short cuts taken in those offices."
He's backed up by the Oxford Economic survey, which concluded that open plan offices might provide "cost savings" but were taking a toll on "our productivity and wellness".
PLN Group already earn 40 per cent of their revenue offshore from clients like Google, Hewlett Packard, Disney, Apple, Citibank and HSBC. They are now looking firmly at growing overseas with their eyes on markets including Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Australia and the US.
Their growth is further proof of the benefits of plugging in to ATEED's strong business network and advisory abilities. Not only did ATEED foster the relationship with Revolution Fibres, it provided NZTE Capability Vouchers as a Regional Business Partner – and PLN has also recently received confirmation of a three-year Callaghan Innovation Growth Grant, following earlier work on grants with ATEED.
PLN was also part of an ATEED and Auckland Council-led delegation of businesses that travelled to Los Angeles in 2015 for the Tripartite Economic Summit, meeting with businesses and organisations from Los Angeles and Guangzhou to build stronger connections and explore opportunities to collaborate.
Pam Ford, ATEED's General Manager Economic Development, says: "PLN is a fantastic example of Auckland's world-class hi-tech manufacturing expertise, providing quality jobs for Aucklanders.
"Blair and his team deserve their ongoing success and we are proud to have played a part in their growth journey by helping them make the right connections, and helping them access crucial support from Callaghan Innovation and NZTE."
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