If you’re looking for a bargain on bean bags or table tennis tables, I suggest you check the skips outside Yahoo! HQ. Surely, if Marissa Mayer is logical in her decision to ban people from working from home, she should go all the way and make the office more corporate. It would only be consistent.

I worked from home when freelancing for a global corporation that specialised in, er, document management (you’re not allowed to use Xerox as a verb these days – it’s political correctness gone mad!). Any advantages gained from working from home were soon neutralised by being dragged into absolutely every online conference call, along with what seemed like the rest of EMEA. You weren’t even allowed to kill time by making a cup of tea while everyone was introducing themselves. I think it was Sven from Helsinki – or maybe Gabriella from Porto – who heard the water running into the kettle and announced to the whole of EMEA: “Oh my God, is someone using the bathroom during the conference call.” They never did renew my contract.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of confusion about how to create the right working environment. Which is good news for resellers because, as they say in this business, where there’s mystery, there’s margin.

Plantronics would be a good place to start your research. It seems to be bunging a lot of money into studying what makes us productive. It’s using that knowledge to help its channel of resellers to fine-tune the working environment. According to its latest research, The State of the Flexible Working Nation, 82% of UK employees want more flexible working policies.

Since the acoustic specialist launched its Simply Smarter Office scheme, Plantronics has seen a 24% increase in employee satisfaction, a reduction in employee absenteeism from 12.7% to 3.5%, and a decrease in attrition from 12% to 2%.

Everyone has different ideas about the right acoustics for the office though. One agency I worked in once was like a library most of the time, unless a client visited the office, in which case the grey-haired codger in charge used to stick a gangsta rap tape in the stereo. For the duration of the visit we had to work while the latest expletives from LA burst our ear drums. Still, it seemed to work, as somehow they’ve maintained their reputation as a young funky B2B marketing agency. Even though the guy who owned the tape was only a few summers short of a colostomy bag.

Some companies, on the other hand, make sure that nobody sits directly opposite each other and they install white noise machines that drowns out all the background noise of other workers yammering down the phone or wrestling their change out of the drinks dispenser.

Surely, there’s massive scope for configuring each working environment to suit the style of the agency. Philips, for example, this week demonstrated Hue - a new range of programmable lighting programmable. You connect the bulbs to a hub which can then be controlled by all kinds of peripherals. So if, say, a man walks into the room preparing to do some work a camera could measure his characteristics (size, weight, gender, age, mood) and pass these on to a computer. The computer runs some algorithms that conclude that this is a 50 year old man who runs a B2B marketing agency, and automatically adjusts the lighting to pipe and slippers mode. If the sombre lighting is a mistake, no problem: algorithms never make the same mistake twice because they’re quick learners – indeed, you want to watch out for them, they’ll have your bloody job if you don’t.

Lighting and acoustics are massively important variables that affect our mood and productivity. We are only beginning to understand how they can be managed, and Philips has only recently launched a channel programme and a software developer kit to encourage third parties to create value here. Ronald Geerlings, Philips’s channel manager, tells me there are no UK developers on board yet. Surely there’s a big opportunity there.

On the same note, you may want to try working with Birmingham based LightwaveRF, which creates a similar range of digitally programmable lighting. Clients will love this technology, I promise!

But it’s the noise, more than anything, that stops you from working. You know the type of thing: “Hey, guys, can you put those ping pong bats down, I’m trying to talk to John Chambers!”. Up until now, I’ve always found it really difficult to work while listening in to a phone conference. Sometimes, people can hear me typing away, and sometimes, the constant yack, yack, yack of the audio conference puts me off. But maybe these new noise cancelling things from Plantronics could help.

I wonder if there’s a setting for cancelling out gangsta rap. Or water running into a kettle. Which, I’m told, sounds remarkably like someone using the bathroom. Though that’s not what happened. Honest.

This was first published in March 2013

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