SUMMARY POINTS

  • Step #1: Check with other coworkers to be sure you’re not overreacting
  • Step #2: Have a group intervention to fix the big major noise problems
  • Step #3: Use headphones with music/sounds to drown out the rest
Great, there he is lumbering towards his desk. You can see everyone’s mood starting to sour.

It’s Neanderthal Nick or “NeanderNick” as we’ve all secretly named him. He’s our local office noise-maker that everyone hates. And, we’re not talking about normal office noises, oh no. It’s far worse.

He thinks out loud to himself all day long, mostly in short bursts of semi-comprehensible words. Mind you, not at some under the breathe volumes, nope. It’s like he’s trying to communicate with a foreigner where his volume may make things clearer and easier to understand.

Peppered throughout the day, he’ll grunt like he’s lifting weights at the gym, but he’s actually just re-adjusting his body in the chair, reaching for the file cabinet or trying to modify something on Powerpoint.

If he decides to eat lunch at his desk, it’s a solid 30 minutes of open mouth chewing, lip-smacking, slurping and long internal burping that sounds like there’s a caged angry animal nearby.

For those of us within an immediate ten desk radius, we bear the brunt of this daily barrage of noises.

When the internal office weather patterns shift and he’s struggling with tech like logging onto a web conference, oh boy, you better watch out. It’s the perfect storm for sonic booms that extend well beyond the normal daily radius. The sound waves will reach all the way across the damn room.

The only thing more devastating is his shout-sneezes. They are like office grenades.

There’s a built-in warning signal of several rapid inhales “aaah, aaah, aaah…” and we’ll all close our eyes and brace ourselves. Then, BOOM goes the dynamite and the cubicle walls and desks shake.

The shock waves will penetrate the thickest conference room walls.

Now, we’re not sure if all of his noises are attention-seeking tactics or if it’s just the way he is. We’re guessing it’s a little bit of both. We’ve ignored all of them as long as we could.

At best, his noises are annoying as hell and totally distracting. At worst, they are really detrimental to others in the office. It negatively impacts productivity and can add a lot of unnecessary stress.

We tried to vote him off the island, but that didn’t work.

So, how did we deal with this?

Our collective action has produced a simple and straightforward 3 step process to counter this problem. It’s common knowledge for most. We wanted to share them with you since you may be going through something similar. Hopefully, on a much smaller scale.

Step #1: Check Yourself First

Just to be sure that you’re not overreacting, talk to several of your desk neighbors privately. Ask them how they honestly feel about the situation. Don’t bias them by telling your opinion first. Let them openly talk first about it.

If most of the folks are fine and the noise level isn’t at the point where it bothers them, then guess what? You’re being an overly sensitive office whiner.

And, you might be suffering from little thing called Misophonia. It’s when everyday common sounds that other people make such as drinking or eating sounds and other repetitive noises will trigger negative emotions. This is a tough one since it can really drive you up the wall, but for everyone else, it’s not a big deal at all.

Go get some earplugs or a good pair of noise-canceling headphones. Use them to minimize the noise levels to your best tolerance. Also, try listening to music or other background sounds to drown-out the noises.

However, if you’ve got several allies on your side, then it changes the game plan.

For us, it was a unanimous consensus. Our little team pretty much had the entire floor on our side. So, we did what was natural and logical.
We ganged up on him.

Step #2: Group Intervention To Fix The Big Problems

When you’re the only one having the issue, it’s much harder to deal with it. Especially, if the noisy coworker is your teammate, someone you currently depend on or may need support from in the future.

It’s a fine line between polite requests and confrontations.

You don’t want to alienate them and have it negatively impact your productivity. If that happens, your questions, support requests, etc. either get delayed responses or in worst cases, none at all. And then, you’ve got that awkward really annoying vibe between the two of you.

However, since there’s a group of you sharing this common pain, it’s a bit easier to handle. Especially, when it impacts a universal work task like basic phone calls. When his shout-sneezes can be heard by someone on the other end of a phone call, that’s crossing the line.

There are so many passive-aggressive and uber kind-n-friendly ways that are mentioned online about how to carefully approach and softly talk to the offender.

Some tell you to approach it very politely and in an indirect kind of way, "Hey, I was wondering about something and wanted your feedback. Our open office plan is so noisy sometimes and we’re all crammed together in here. Is there anything that you think we should do to lower the noise levels?”

We have three words for these types of approaches: Fuck That Shit.

You gotta be direct and honest but not rude and brash. Makes sense?

Gather the tribe and the offender into a meeting room and have a mini-intervention. But, this is important - don’t turn it into a yelling session at your target. He or she may not even be self-aware of their noise. Making the session confrontational won’t do anyone any good.
Just calmly explain and point out that their behavior is really beyond the normal acceptable noise levels. Then, rather than asking them to stop making noises (impossible), ask them to “turn down the volume.”

We set-up a short meeting called “Office Noise” and included NeanderNick on the invite list.

At the beginning of the meeting, we made it super clear that this was about him. No bones about it. Everyone calmly expressed their issue to him - all on his most common and loudest noise violations.

He was not surprised at some of the comments, “Yeah, sorry...I sneeze really loudly.” No shit. But to his credit, “I’ll try to remember to muffle it” was a promising step in the right direction.

For the other ones that he wasn’t aware of, he now knows to dial it down. “I didn’t realize that I was thinking out loud that often or that loudly. That’s just the way I work. I’ll try to keep my comments to myself.”

Some in the group felt like it was a beat-down session on NeanderNick. And honestly, it kinda was. It needed to be done.

Some folks on the team also opened up if they’re making any noises that bother the group as well. It helped to balance things a bit.

By having the group voice their common issues, there is no one person that can be singled out as a whiner and it shows that it’s impacting the entire team. Plus, the offender would have a harder time being “less cooperative or supportive” to a larger group - also known as grown-up peer pressure.

If our little session wasn’t effective, we would’ve had a follow up meeting with HR and his manager. But thankfully, it never got to that point. You may experience otherwise, so be prepared for that possibility.

If you’re not able to get a group together, then either it’s really not an overwhelming group issue or nobody’s got the balls to be direct and join in.
And if it's the latter case, you'll need to bring in an "Office Linebacker" to sort things out.

VIDEO: Terry Tate Office Linebacker
YOUTUBE: Terry Tate
LENGTH: 1:00
Summary points:
  • Don't forget the cover sheet for TPS reports
  • Use Skype instead of long-distance phone calls
  • Don't exceed your break time
Eventually, NeanderNick’s noise levels did go down, but it took occasional reminders over the next 2-3 months to keep things in check. Yes, it sometimes felt like we were bugging him but if we didn't do it, his old habits would've returned and the noise levels would've just gone back up to where it was before.

Step #3: Use Headphones To Drown Out The Remaining Noises

Now that the biggest of his outbursts have subsided, his overall noise level is at the upper end of the acceptable range. He’d still be scowled at if he was in the library, but in our normal busy office, he’s improved to the point where he’s louder than most but much better than he was before.

We give him big credit and thanks for his efforts to tone things down.

The out loud thinking is sporadic and when it does happen, it’s more of a conversation-level mumbling instead of Tourettes style outbursts. Next, he’s been good about muffling his shout-sneezes and doesn’t yell them outward anymore - thank God.

The one remaining area that bugs us is that he’s a naturally a loud-talker, regardless of the situation. This is both on the phone and when he’s talking with someone face-to-face. The guy’s got a booming voice that penetrates through walls.

When the sound meter starts creeping into the danger zone, one of us will try to get his attention and signal him to switch to his indoor-voice mode. We feel like the old lady librarian when we do this.

The good thing is that he keeps personal conversation to a minimum. Every once in awhile, he’s on the phone dealing with home renovation stuff and other random things. Overall though, it’s mostly work-related stuff. And so, we can’t fault him for that.

However, these secondary conversations that are taking place nearby will often hijack our focus. You get into a tug-of-war with your mind between the work that’s on your screen and the irrelevant conversation taking place next to you.

We can’t help ourselves from eavesdropping on a side conversation that starts like, “Oh my God, I saw the most crazy thing on the way to the office this morning. It was absolutely unbelievable. You gotta hear this.”

It’s all over now and your focus is not on work anymore, but on what the hell happened on your coworker’s commute to work.

The best solution to this is a combination of two things:

Headphones + Music or Background Sounds = Better Focus

If you’ve ever been inside a true open office layout, you’ll see that it’s a big room with a bunch of long tables. All of the employees are grouped together on a long table. There’s no walls, doors, partitions, etc.
The open office layout is supposed to promote greater and freer collaboration and creativity. But, it’s done the exact opposite.

Nearly everyone’s got headphones on. And, it’s for a good reason - to drown out the noise of the office and other conversations. Having a pair of headphones on is the equivalent of having our office door closed.

It gives us three things that we all desperately want and need:
  • Less Noise - Listening to music or background sounds masks other unwanted noise in the office
  • Do Not Disturb - Wearing headphones is like an informal "do not disturb" sign to others nearby
  • Less Interruptions - Minimizes "across the table" or "other side of cubicle wall" requests/comments
For our team and the others within NeanderNick's ten desk radius, we all have headphones on or at-the-ready. When his jibber-jabber begins, it’s time to put on the ‘phones and play some fav tunes or turn on background noise.

This drowns out almost all of the random office noises including all the secondary conversations. We’re then able to focus a bit more on our work. If you need more strategies on how to focus in your noisy office, read this article.

This is the closest we’ll ever get to having our own private offices.

We’ll end this story with a short prayer...
"Oh please, Our Lady Of Cubicle Salvation, protect us from further torment, preserve our sanity and bless us with extra vacation days...Amen."

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]

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