Focusing In A Noisy Office To Get Shit Done

SUMMARY POINTS

> Work with HR to eliminate or minimize noise
> Create a dedicated silent room or working group
> Find secluded quiet spots in the office
> Drown out, mask, cancel or reduce the noise with headphones

Bzzzzz….Whoosh….Thwap…

Bzzzzz….Whoosh….Thwap…

Bzzzzz….Whoosh….Thwap…

This mind-numbing repeating pattern of the copy machine printer noises goes on and on for what feels like an eternity.

So, we do a little Sherlock Holmes and check the printer job list.

What...Da...Fuck...somebody just sent a 300+ page document to the printer. Really? You gotta be frickin’ kidding me.

This print job is gonna chew through a full ream of paper.

Now, we’ve got to listen to this droning for the next who knows how long. And to make matters worse, we’ve got a front row seat right by the copy machine printer.

The warm odor of printer toner starts to drift up and over our cubicle walls.

Bzzzzz….Whoosh….Thwap…

♫ Here’s my number, so call me maybe ♫ 

Bzzzzz….Whoosh….Thwap...

♫ Here’s my number, so call me maybe ♫ 

Bzzzzz….Whoosh….Thwap…

♫ Here’s my number, so call me maybe ♫ 

OMG, please - mute - your - damn - phone.

We’re really tempted to cross enemy lines and sneak into our co-workers cubicle and mute it ourselves, but we've got another better idea. We’ll get back to this little problem later.

“No way. Burritos are sooo much tastier than tacos…”

“Can we drill this down...beef it up...loop me in?”

“And then, he had the nerve to ask me if I could…”

“Let’s get our ducks in a row at a 30,000 foot view.”

Bzzzzz….Whoosh….Thwap…

Let's be honest here. Open office floor plans just plain suck.

Whether it’s a dot-com startup, creative media agency, progressive tech company or even an old skool traditional corporate office, an open office layout is all about maximizing cost efficiencies under the veil of “collaborative open spaces.”

If you can pack more employees in a given space, the company doesn’t have to spend as much money on renting office space.

Our section in particular is densely packed with low-walled cubicles. We call our little neighborhood “the low-income district” of the office.

To our VP of Finance, this is a very good thing.

However, what the VP fails to understand from their glass enclosed office is the bigger picture.

These types of office layouts make sense financially but they are absolute killers of productivity.

This study from Ipsos, an international research firm, and Steelcase, the office furniture manufacturer, shows that open office layouts are simply not a good thing in terms of productivity and health.

Here are the key points from the survey of office workers across Europe, North America and Asia:
- 85% of workers are dissatisfied with their workspace and can’t concentrate
- 95% of employees indicated that working privately is important
- 31% of folks had to leave the office to get work done
- On average, office workers lose almost an hour and half to distractions

This Harvard Business Review chart visualizes this study from the University of Sydney about office noise and it put things into clear graphical terms.

Simply put, open office plans and the noises they create can make our work lives absolutely miserable.

Some folks, like this guy below, will go to extreme measures to block out noise.

Yeah...this cardboard box hobo shelter is definitely not fire code compliant. But, the windchimes are a nice little touch.

We definitely don’t recommend going to these crazy lengths.

However, we do have a bunch of solutions that you can put to use right now, today, to save your sanity and bring a bit more focus into your workday.

Many of these options require that you have a laptop or at the very least, have the ability to get a laptop loaner from your IT department.

If you’re anchored to your cubicle with a desktop computer and don’t have the ability to get a laptop loaner, then read section 1 then jump down to sections 5-7 for help.

Okay, let’s go through these one at a time.

1. Meet with HR To Eliminate Or Minimize The Noise

Your very first step in dealing with office noise is to meet with HR.

Send an email or even better, set-up a 15 or 30 minute meeting with your HR manager to explain your situation.

Chances are really good that you’re not the only one suffering. So, it’s a really good idea to bring a few of your cubicle neighbors with you.

Group consensus/unity works really well in influencing HR.

Tell them about the biggest noises that are distracting you and your fellow neighbors. And, here’s the important part, present possible solutions to them.

If the copier/printer is located near your cubicle and others, ask if it can be moved to an empty closet, down the hall or in the VP of Finance’s office. 😉

If you’ve got speakerphone-junkies in the office, ask HR to implement a new policy prohibiting speakerphone use and have them work with IT to disable speakerphone function in all cubicle desk phones. It’ll reduce a lot of distractions and allow everyone to focus more easily.

You get the idea - don’t just complain. Share your ideas and possible solutions.

2. Create A Dedicated Silent Room

Is there an empty or vacant office or an under-utilized storage room at your workplace?

There’s usually an oddball conference room or meeting space that is rarely used. Maybe, because it’s too far away, there’s no speakerphone, no projection screen...whatever.

It’s simply the stepchild space of the office.

Make a proposal to HR to convert that dead space into a “Silent Zone” work area. It’d be a dedicated quiet room for individuals to work in ultimate silence.

Here are some of the ground rules we’d put in place if we had one:
- 100% Quiet Zone
- Phones must be on mute (no vibrate)
- No talking whatsoever (all conversations outside)
- No music (even with headphones)
- No eating or drinking

As a bonus, mention to HR that it could double as a meditation room during lunch hour. It’s zero added cost to the company. Plus, meditation is a big thing right now and HR folks all know the benefits of this. This could be the cherry on top.

3. Create A Silent Working Group

If your office doesn’t have an unused space to create a dedicated silent room or if it’s just not possible for one reason or another, hope is not all lost.

Here’s another approach that will work but it may create some angst, especially if meeting rooms are a precious commodity at your company.

Step #1:
Find 3 to 5 like-minded co-workers that want/need ultra-quiet time to focus on work.

Any more than that and it has greater chance of reverting back to a noisy group.

Any less than that and you’ll run the risk of having less than two people in the meeting room because people’s availability to join will fluctuate so you need to plan for this. If a meeting room often only has two people, it’s a bit of a waste and you may lose the room.

Step #2:
Set-up a meeting with them and put out a plan to create a “silent working group” that will meet 1x, 2x, 3x weekly or whatever frequency that works.

We suggest starting small with a 1x weekly session that meets for 1 hour, then you can bump it up to 2 hours. Don’t book for more than 2 hours - that’s hogging up the meeting room.

The two hour block of time is ideal. This will allow enough time to get some meaningful work done but not monopolize too much meeting room time or take you away from your desk for too long.

And, discuss the ground rules of the working group. You can use the same ones mentioned above.

The main emphasis should be on the benefits of an uninterrupted block of quiet time to bang out serious work, away from all the noisy nonsense in the open area.

Step #3:
After getting group agreement on things, look for a suitable meeting room on the calendar 2-3 weeks or even a month out if meeting rooms are packed out.

Then, reserve that meeting room for one or two hours on the agreed time and date. Make it a recurring meeting for that same time slot every week in that same meeting room.

Add your group members to the recurring meeting invite.

Copy/Paste this info into your new meeting invite:

* * * * * * * * * *
Title: Silent Working Group

Notes:
This is a “silent working group” session for interruption-free, distraction-free and noise-free heads-down work.

Please follow these rules to maintain silence:
1. No talking whatsoever - any and all conversations must be outside room
2. No music (even with headphones)
3. Phones must be on MUTE (no sounds, no vibrations)
4. No eating or drinking

* * * * * * * * * *

Now, if you’re not able to create a dedicated silent work space or a silent working group, you could try finding a secret secluded spot just for yourself somewhere in the office. 

4. Find A Secluded Spot

There are some areas of an office that are less busy or only busy at certain times or events. During those off-peak times or moments, these spots can be great little in-office getaways for productivity.

Here are a few that we sneak off to every now and then:
1. Lunchroom or cafeteria - dead empty outside the hours of 11:30am to 2:00pm
2. HR interview room - pretty much unoccupied except for scheduled interviews
3. IT server room - nothing but white noise hum of computers
4. Dark-n-dusty corner - an absolutely unappealing spot but it's quiet

If none of the above ideas are possible for you, then you need to tackle this head on and fight the noise with sounds.

5. Drown Out The Noise

This is by far the most commonly used method for dealing with office noise distractions. It’s essentially using noise to fight noise. Or more specifically, using sounds to drown out unwanted noise.

What’s the difference between sound and noise?

Sound is what our ears hear. Noise is a “sound” that we don’t want to hear.

It’s like those really loud Harley-Davidson motorcycles. To motorcycle gearheads, it’s an awesome “sound.” To normal mainstream people, it’s unwanted “noise.”

In our open office, the noises are the copier/printer, side conversations, random ringtones, NeanderNick, etc. They are all unwanted noise.

Here are some common and not-so-common ways to drown out or mask noises in your office.

Grab your headphones and give these all a try.

Themed Playlist Stations
- Open your favorite music app on your phone or computer
- Find the curated playlist options for “working at office” or “relaxing”
- Get some fresh tunes into your noggin’

Movie Music Soundtracks
- Songs from your favorite movies are great for tuning out distractions
- Browse your streaming music app for new ones too
- Some of our favs: Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Lion King

Movie Instrumental Scores
- For the times that lyrics would be too distracting
- All available on your music app
- Epic scores: Star Wars, The Godfather, Phantom of the Opera

Virtual Cafe Sounds
- Escape from your real cubicle and into a virtual cafe
- Go grab a fresh cup of coffee and listen into the buzz
- A popular one: HipsterSound  

Mother Nature’s Orchestra
- Who says you can’t work from a white sandy beach or the rainforest?
- Let your imagination allow you to work remotely from anywhere
- Background nature sounds: Noisli  

White Noise
- Use the entire sound spectrum to cover up office noise
- White noise (Pink & Brown too): Noisli 
- Pink is less tinny than white and brown is even more so

If you need more information about masking noises with your headphones, read this article here. We explain all the above options in more detail.

6. Cancel The Noise

If you’ve got some dollars to throw at the problem, you could consider active noise-cancelling headphones to enhance music and nature sounds from #5.

Using a embedded microphone and some whiz-bang tech, noise cancelling headphones will create an exact opposite sound of the noise and effectively offset or cancel it out.

When it’s used with music or another sound input, the headphones will minimize external noises and allow the music or sounds to come through more clearly.

Noise cancelling headphones work best in environments where the noise is consistent - like the drone of sitting inside an airplane or the hum of a nearby air conditioner.

They don’t work so well for random noises like side conversations, ringing phones, etc. They will reduce or muffle it a bit, but they won’t really cancel it out fully.

Here’s our take on this.

If you like listening to music or background sounds while working, then noise-cancelling headphones will enhance your listening enjoyment.

They’d be a good investment. Go for it.

It’s amazing how much better music sounds when you use noise cancelling headphones. It’s like you’re in a private sound studio where it’s just you and the music.

However, if you’re only trying to reduce noise (no music or sounds wanted), it’s far better and cheaper to just use the next idea.

7. Reduce The Noise

If you’ve ever seen the ground crew at airports, they’re always wearing headphone earmuffs - for good reason.

Jet engines are damn loud. Exposing your hearing to loud noises will result in irreversible hearing damage.

Industrial headphone earmuffs do a fantastic job of reducing loud noises.

If you don’t mind looking a bit goofy and getting your hair messed up a little, buy a pair of earmuffs and when things get rowdy in your area, just put ‘em on and you’ll instantly kick down the volume.

For crazy strong noise reduction, you can double up with foam ear plugs. If you do this, you’ll pretty much be deaf to everything around you.

We don’t recommend ear plugs because:
1. Difficult To Insert - Not easy to plug properly
2. Uncomfortable - Feels like a wedgie in your ears
3. Inconvenient - Pulling out for chats and reinserting
4. Costly - Must throw out after few uses
5. Not Obvious - people can’t tell you’re wearing

Just stick with the earmuffs instead. Here’s why:
1. Easy-on and easy-off
2. More comfortable and lasts longer than earplugs
3. Durable and inexpensive
4. Doesn’t need batteries or charging
5. Clearly signals to others around you that you’re concentrating

Yes, it will mess up your perfect hair a bit and yes, it’s not the most fashionable thing to wear.

But, when the noise gets to be too much and your stress is mounting, the benefits of instant quiet will far outweigh the small negatives.

Take Control Of Office Noise

In our list of workplace wishes, having sound privacy is at the very top.

We’re fine with open collaboration areas and in fact, we love ‘em for those types of meetings. However, for all the other times we need to get shit done, we want something a bit quieter.

Kinda like this cubicle concept below from Vank, a furniture design outfit from Poland.

(Credit: Vank)

How cool is that, huh? That’s one cubicle we’d enjoy working out of.

But, getting our tightwad VP of Finance to green light those cubicles will never happen. So, we’ve got to take control of office noise ourselves and so should you.

Eliminate the noises you can. For the remaining noises, do your best to either get away from them or block, mask and drown them out.

You have the power to choose and control how to manage it.

It can be done, even in the noisiest of offices. If the unruly crazy folks at Dunder Mifflin have figured out a way to create quiet time, then you have absolutely no excuse to not find a way to get quiet focus time for yourself.

VIDEO: Dunder Mifflin Is A Quiet Place
YOUTUBE: The Office US
LENGTH: 2:24

Summary points:
- Silence is a disciplined skill that's tough to master 
- Food-gasms are impossible to hold back

As for our dilemma, the copy machine printer couldn’t be relocated to the VP’s office. We tried. And about the Carly Rae ringtone - we got that problem “fixed” thanks to a brave tech-nerd.

He added in a soundless audio clip and named it “Call Me Maybe” then renamed the real one to “Sample”.

Pure genius.

The lesson here - don’t be that person in the office with an obnoxiously loud and annoying ringtone. You will be punished eventually.

And, put a screen lock on your smartphone. 😉

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]