Katie Byrne: 'Welcome to the modern office, where talking is out of bounds'

Finding it hard to focus on your work without getting interrupted every three minutes? Japanese electronic giant, Panasonic, might have the solution.

The brand’s Future Life Factory has unveiled a prototype for wearable blinkers that are designed to limit your sense of sound and sight, and help you focus on what’s directly in front of you. Basically, the same thing a racehorse wears to keep its eyes on the prize – only fancier.

At the right angle, the Wearspace blinkers look like something Tilda Swinton might wear to the Met Ball. At the wrong angle, they look like the adjustable headrest on an airplane seat. The inventors at Panasonic collaborated with Japanese fashion designer Kunihiko Morinaga to give their prototype a sleek, futuristic look.

Only the Wearspace blinkers are no fashion statement.

Despite the brand’s best attempts to make the prototype look dynamic, they are designed for people who want to tune out the outside world and signal to co-workers that they have now entered a chit-chat free zone. (A growing cohort, if the sales of noise-cancelling headphones are anything to go by.)

We can baulk all we like at this new innovation, but that would be to overlook the blinkers that we’re already wearing in the office. Some wear headphones – the office equivalent of a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. Some project a forcefield of nervous energy that would silence even the chattiest co-worker. The rest just work from home, where they can get distracted on their own terms.

This isn’t to say we’re all disengaging at work. There are still office workers who enjoy the camaraderie and collegiality of the workspace – it’s just they can’t really find anyone to talk to. Like the Ghosts of Workplace Past, they haunt offices with their increasingly desperate attempts for water-cooler conversation. Unlike the rest of us, they didn’t get the memo about the cult of busy – or at least the cult of looking busy. There was a time when the chatty co-worker lightened the mood and lifted morale. Nowadays, they are cited in workplace surveys as the worst office distraction.

That is to say that most employees find the dopamine hit of incoming texts, the tyranny of their inbox and the thrall of social media less distracting than the co-worker who just wants to know if they’ve seen the new House Of Cards. Chatty co-workers are distracting, but we have to be careful not to take our digital-deluge frustration out on them. Besides, if the workplace evolution continues in its current form, they won’t be chatting for much longer.

Futurist think-tanks spend a lot of time imagining the workplace of tomorrow – paperless offices, drone lunch delivery and ‘touchdown spaces’. What they don’t mention, however, is that the most significant shift in workplace culture is already well underway. The workplace of tomorrow will be a ‘shared office space’ where employees gather for tasks and meetings that can’t be completed at home.

And with most of the workforce wearing noise-cancelling headphones – or maybe even Panasonic’s blinkers – it will be eerily silent. We’re already seeing the knock-on effects of the too-quiet office. ‘Pin-drop syndrome’ – a term coined by workplace psychologists to describe the stress caused by extreme quietness – is on the rise, while workplace chit-chat is on the wane. You could argue that companies are counteracting this with beanbag break-out areas and whatnot, yet look beyond the contrived attempts to cultivate workplace socialisation and you’ll notice that workspaces are undergoing their own evolution.

The gig economy is welcoming freelancers into the workplace while some companies are initiating ‘hot-desking’ – a practice that allows employees to sit wherever they like each day. It is said to encourage integration but let’s be honest, you’re hardly going to ask a fellow hot-desker how their weekend was if you don’t even know their name.

Couple this with the #MeToo movement – and the need to second-guess anything that might be misconstrued as flirting – and you have a perfect storm for office disengagement.

When we imagine the workplace of the future, we tend to worry about increasing surveillance and robots taking our jobs.

Yet a much more serious issue is afoot: employees are retreating – into their work and into themselves – and their employers aren’t holding them back.

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