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Communication In The Office Of The Future


by Rick Farrell, President of Plant-Tours.com

“Business as usual.” Once a mundane phrase, in today’s world where perspectives have been shaped by the global pandemic, the idea of business as usual almost triggers a sense of longing. There’s a gap in many people’s lives waiting to be filled by simply holding more in-person conversations with more people. Three in four business travelers surveyed expressed a preference for face-to-face interaction. Fortune 500 executives ranked “stronger camaraderie and morale” as the top benefit of getting workers back into their offices, cited by 61% of those surveyed.

But we all know “business as usual” will never look quite the same. Call it “the new normal,” call it “the next normal,” we all want to get there, even though we don’t know quite what it will look, sound, and feel like. If you suspect social distancing in some form will be part of that world, you’re more than likely right. A McKinsey survey of global executives found that six in ten plan to hire more people “to manage on-site physical distancing and sanitation.”

Challenges to communication in different types of environments

On factory floors and at construction sites the challenges to clear communication are twofold. Machinery and equipment are typically operated nearly continuously, producing a din that can often cross 100 decibels in intensity. And the headgear many workers wear to protect their hearing may make them safer, but it’s an additional hindrance to communication. Social distancing requirements are a secondary barrier to communication. But while this may seem almost trivial in comparison to ambient noise, it can elevate the problem incrementally; when just being heard can require a shout next to the listener’s ear, a six-foot gap can make it almost impossible to communicate.

An office environment is clearly different from those types of workplaces in many ways. Worker safety isn’t much of an issue, and noise levels are more than manageable. But where ambient noise doesn’t create problems hearing co-workers, social distancing now rises to the top as the biggest impediment to communication.

Social distancing in the office

Companies such as global real estate management firm Cushman & Wakefield have begun developing and experimenting with the “6 feet office,” a design approach that builds a capacity for social distancing permanently into the layout.

“The new office” inspired by the new normal will comprise fewer open floor plans, larger work spaces, larger conference room tables, and continued accommodation for online meetings as a portion of the workforce continues to work offsite. If company-wide meetings are to be held in person, the space required may well seem cavernous in comparison to old familiar norms. While it’s easy enough to hear a speaker using a conventional microphone and sound system, when he or she is a distant figure at the end of a large space it’s difficult to achieve the sense of personal connection that makes in-person meetings beneficial in the first place.

The solutions converge

While overcoming those challenges in varying types of work environments may seem to present varying degrees of difficulty, in fact one solution may span them all: two-way tour guide system consisting of headsets with transceivers and receivers. A “voice in your ear” means that workers in factories or on construction sites can speak without fear of being drowned out. In addition, the headsets can work with headgear designed to protect the wearer from hearing loss.

But imagine small or large meetings, fully or partially in-person, that take place with all participants equipped with two-way communication headsets. That voice in the ear now not only eliminates any problems in communication across dispersed participants. As an alternative to those company-wide meetings with a distant podium and a loudspeaker, it transforms the message from a monologue to a two-way conversation by enabling questions or comments in real-time.

This may well be the next normal. It may be surprising to learn that it will actually have some advantages over the previous one.


Rick Farrell is North America’s foremost expert in improving manufacturing group communication, education, training and group hospitality processes. He has over 40 years of group hospitality experience, most recently serving as President of Plant-Tours.com for the last 18 years.  He has provided consulting services with the majority of Fortune 500 industrial corporations improving group communication dynamics of all types in manufacturing environments. Plant-Tours.com manufactures the most reliable, easy to use, highest quality headset communication systems for the manufacturing, industrial and institution markets.