Dealing with Noise in an Open Office Setting

Laura Sweltz, Director of UX Research and Strategic Initiatives

Article Category: #News & Culture

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We have open office floor plans at Viget. While there are benefits to an open office, there are also downsides. Like noise. For some people (like moi) who have issues focusing when there are conversations happening around them, an open office floorplan can sometimes feel like:

So here’s how I deal:

  • Add white noise to the office. When a lack of ambient noise became an issue in our Boulder office, we added a couple of white noise machines throughout our open seating area to help block out unwanted sounds. These machines help to break up conversations so it’s harder to hear what people are saying.    
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones. I used to see noise-cancelling headphones and think they were silly — or at least silly expensive. But then I received a pair of my own (of the Bose variety) and the clouds parted and I saw the heavens. Okay, so maybe they aren’t that good but they are pretty darn effective. While they don’t block out sound completely, they make a big difference compared to traditional headphones. They’re also comfortable enough to wear all day.  
  • Pump up the jams. I use a music streaming service pretty much all day, every day when I’m working in the office (Spotify is my current service of choice though most of the Viget crew jams to Rdio). Music helps to block out noise — whether it’s classical, EDM, or the Irish jigs that I’ve been known to bust out probably more frequently than I should admit. Whatever your fancy, pick something you can work too and crank it up.   
  • Throw a little more white noise at the problem. When I don’t feel like rocking out, I turn to even more white noise. Spotify and Rdio both have white noise playlists. I also use A Soft Murmur, a fun tool that allows you to mix your own background noise — a personal white noise symphony of sorts. My own mix is a little bit crickets, a little bit thunder, and a whole lot of fire. Sound like your cup of tea? You can zone out to my sweet, sweet mix here.  
  • Be cognizant of your own impact. I’m probably one of more hypersensitive people in the office when it comes to noise. But — gasp! — I’m also a contributor. I enjoy chatting with my co-workers and working through ideas out in the open as much as anyone else. If I’m going to have a prolonged conversation, however, I try to make a point to move the discussion into a room to try to minimize noise issues for others.  
  • Understand when you need to shake things up. When I know that I’ll be spending a prolonged amount of time focusing hard on a task, I’ll hunker down in a conference room (if there’s one available) or work from home. Sometimes you beat the noise and sometimes the noise beats you. Taking a break from the open office environment from time to time can be just what the doctor ordered.  
  • Take a chill pill already. I easily get worked up about noise because if I’m trying to concentrate and I can’t, it’s frustrating. But it’s also important to remember that I work in a communal office space and no one is purposely trying to disrupt my day. So breathe in, breathe out, and carry on. Namaste and whatnot.  

Luckily, now that I've put these tips to use, I'm more like:

Whether you’re a fan or not, open offices are here to stay. If you’re sensitive to noise like me, I recommend trying some of these techniques to help you stay focused on your work. If you have your own secrets for dealing with office noise, share them in the comments so I can steal them immediately.  

Laura Sweltz

Laura is Viget's Director of UX Research and Strategic Initiatives. She works from our Durham, NC office, where she helps clients like Rotary International, AARP, and Time Life understand the needs and behaviors of their users.

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