It’s no secret I’m not a fan of the open-office environment—especially a noisy one. While I’m sure, in some cases, having everyone out in the open can foster creativity and encourage brainstorming, collaboration, and all that good stuff, it’s an introvert’s worst nightmare, not to mention the enemy of anyone on a deadline.
Fortunately for you, I endured over 14 years of zero privacy, crowded desk spaces, and mind-numbing chatter (including the pre-iPod years, when everyone listened to their music sans headphones), and today, I’m going to tell you how I did it without going mad.
1. Headphones Are Your Friends
Investing in a good pair of headphones is a good idea for several reasons: They’re an easy way to block out office chatter, sticking them in signals to those around you that you need to get down to business, and, possibly most importantly, you can listen to Britney without judgment. Throw those headphones in your work bag tonight, and you’ll thank me tomorrow.
That said, there’s one caveat here: Some managers have a real issue with their employees totally tuning out during work hours. I had an employee who used to wear those giant hipster headphones—you know, the ones like pilots wear—and whenever I needed him, I had to get up, walk over, and startle the daylights out of him when I tapped him on the shoulder. While I realized he was just trying to get his work done, the fact I couldn’t easily reach him was a constant annoyance.
Don’t be that guy. Bring in your earbuds, keep the volume down (your colleagues should not be able to hear Kanye thumping from your head), and if possible, keep just one ear musically occupied, so if someone does need you, you’ll be able to hear and respond appropriately.
2. Take a Walk
When you have a physical office and your colleagues start getting rambunctious, the solution’s simple: Close your door. Unfortunately, for anyone on the other side of that door, that’s not an option. So, do the next best thing: Take a little time out to collect yourself.
I first tried this when I was in a truly open environment, with several booming voices within arms’ reach. I genuinely enjoyed working with everyone in the office, but at times, the sheer volume would make me cringe. So, when I found myself feeling frustrated, I just got up and walked away from the source of the sound. A quick trip to the kitchen to get some water or a lap around the block for a caffeine fix usually did the trick nicely.
Sometimes, all you need is a little peace and quiet. Just a little, mind you. Eventually, you’ll have to jump back into the fray, but with a little breather, you’ll be in a much better state of mind and better able to tune it out on your own.
3. Stop it Before it Starts
Sometimes, taking preventative measures is your best option when trying to tackle a sensitive or potentially awkward situation. This is definitely true with a noisy office. If you know you have a deadline coming up or some super-focused work to do, don’t be afraid to spread the word around the office early in the day.
Whenever I had a big project to work on or a fire to put out, I’d chat up anyone who would listen. For example, “Hey Bob, how are things in accounting? You guys must be busy, because I’m absolutely slammed this week!” The trick here is to be genuine in your interest in Bob’s plight: This angle won’t work if your targeted sympathizer thinks you’re solely concerned with your own work.
But, if done well, you’ll not only create a little empathy for your situation, but you’ll also covertly heighten your colleagues’ awareness of how busy they are, creating a few allies in your fight against the noise.
Start in the kitchen over coffee, and choose your targets carefully. Keep things balanced between those who may be in the same boat and the potential chatterboxes. Before lunchtime, everyone should be well aware the entire office is buried and that social hour will just have to wait until happy hour.
4. Have the Talk
Sometimes, office noise really can get out of hand. And trust me, no one wants to be the killjoy and tell everyone to quiet down. But really, most of the time, people don’t realize how loud they’re being, and they'll probably appreciate a gentle reminder. Countless times over the years, I’ve been told (or had to tell employees) to take it down a notch, and in just about every occasion, no one was offended.
So, if headphones, preemptive measures, or taking a lap around the block aren’t cutting it, don’t be afraid to have a chat with your colleagues. Do it with a smile, and if possible, even join in on the chatter for a quick moment. Show you care what they’re talking about, then politely ask if they would mind continuing their discussion in a conference room. If appropriate, you can even tell them you’d like to join them, but you have a few things you need to get out the door first.
By showing your team genuine respect for their discussion, you avoid making your colleagues feel like you just don’t find their chat interesting—and subtly point out everyone still has work to get done as well.
Working in a noisy office can sometimes be a huge boost to creativity and collaboration and often fosters a close bond with your team. But, when it sounds more like nails on a chalkboard than inspiration, follow these steps to stay sane—and productive.