How to Stay Productive in a Noisy Workplace

You don’t really hate noise per se. It’s just that, when your job requires you to concentrate for hours at a time, the last thing you need is a noisy coworker yammering about their latest escapades as though you’re on opposite sides of a valley.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately) you’re not the only one with that problem. When Oxford Economics asked 1,200 employees about what makes a healthy work environment, 29 percent put “the ability to focus and work without interruptions” at the top of their list. Interestingly, of the millennial respondents, 50 percent said noise bothered them more than any of the other groups.

Makes you rethink the idea that millennials like their workplaces loud, doesn’t it?

At any rate, the survey suggests that noise is a real problem in today’s workplaces. If your company isn’t taking measures to reduce unwanted interruptions in your office, here’s how you can take matters into your own hands.


1. Be an Early Bird/Late Lark

If you can’t beat or join them, avoid them! Get to your station before your colleagues show up, and start your work ASAP.

Eat your frogs, a.k.a. get your hardest tasks out of the way first. That way, if it gets noisy later, you don’t have to worry about maintaining enough concentration to finish your job.

In case you’re unable to finish on time, there’s one other thing you can do: wait for everyone else to leave the office, then wrap up what needs to be wrapped up. Sure, you’ll miss out on a few after-work activities, but if you’re bent on avoiding office noise at all costs, this isn’t an option you can throw away completely.


2. Ask Your Boss to Relocate You

Is there a place in your office where you can work without interruptions? If you haven’t found one already, do a little digging. Ask your boss to let you stay there for a day or two, so you can test whether the place is as noise-free as it looks.

Speaking of which, there’s a trick to convincing your boss to let you relocate. Avoid being too negative about your former location. (“I can’t work there anymore, because it’s so noisy!”) Instead, emphasize how your new location will be beneficial to the company. (“If my desk is here, I can get X times as many tasks done as I did before.”)


3. Listen to Music That Helps You Concentrate

There’s music that helps you focus, and there’s music that doesn’t. For example, playing your favorite track boosts your concentration, but only if that track doesn’t have lyrics. Other kinds of music that can help you focus include classical Baroque, electronic music, video game music and simple ambient noise.

Granted, researchers are still debating about the exact kind of music that helps with productivity. But don’t be afraid to experiment with what works for you. Check out YouTube’s hour-long videos of relaxing tunes, for starters.


4. Use a White Noise Generator

If music is more distracting to you than not, you can also try white noise generators. For example, the SimplyNoise white noise generator sounds like waves from the ocean. And because it’s repetitive without being distracting, it has the same effect as instrumental music: You decrease unwanted noise and increase your concentration at the same time.


5. Use Noise-Cancelling Headphones

As their name suggests, noise-cancelling headphones block out all noise. They either create a physical barrier between sound waves and your ears (i.e. “noise isolation”), or they neutralize those sounds with destructive interference. Most of these headphones can be pricey, but some can be purchased for a reasonable price.

There’s a caveat to them, however. Because they’re so effective at keeping out noise, you might experience colleagues who’ll be annoyed that they have to tap your shoulder to get your attention. Use them if you must, but use your best judgment if you’re frequently answering phone calls or fielding questions from coworkers.


6. Talk to Your Coworkers

Sometimes, the direct route is the best. But don’t break it to your erring coworker too much, or too soon. Take a moment to step back from the situation and think carefully on how you’ll go about it.

First, consider whether you’ve contributed to the noise as well. Is your co-worker really the only one who needs to shut their hole, or will calling them out make you look like the pot, and them the kettle? When you make the effort to empathize with your colleague, it makes them more likely to do the same for you.

Afterwards, talk to your colleague in private. Start your conversation with something positive. Point out one area of improvement at a time. Make it clear that your problem is with the noise-inducing habit, not with the person who has that habit. Say something like: “Hey there, nice job on the report yesterday! I was going to finish mine, too, but the talking distracted me too much. Do you think we could look into a quiet space to use as a meeting room? That way I won’t be a distraction to you, either!”


7. Work From Home

If there’s no way to keep out noise from the office, consider working in a place where you have full control over how many interruptions you’re willing to tolerate — i.e. your house. Similar to how you’d ask about relocating your desk, talk to your boss about how it’ll be so much better for the company if employees could be allowed to telecommute. Use facts to back up your case.

In case your boss has reservations about that, tell them you’ll do a trial run first. Ask them to let you telecommute for a month or two, and monitor your results. If your performance is significantly better than when you worked in the office, your boss might accept your proposal for good.


8. Find a Less Noisy Job

Of course, this should only be a last resort. If the noise in your office is affecting your productivity, and your company isn’t willing to do anything about it, maybe it’s a sign to look for better opportunities elsewhere. You deserve better treatment than what you’re getting now.


It’s not always possible to avoid noise. If you can’t use earplugs 24/7, try the steps above, instead.


How do you deal with a noisy office? Share your tips and stories in the comments!

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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