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Why the office can be annoying for noise-sensitive workers

At the start of the pandemic, people seemed eager to engage with coworkers and ditch their home offices. But now, a growing percentage of people would give anything to work at home forever.

The reasons are many, but one is the decibel gap. For many of us, home is quiet; but offices, while great for social stimulation, can be full of noise.

Specifically, I’m talking about the people whose small, daily noise habits are so stressful, being around them invokes the same learned helplessness as being in a room with a chirping smoke alarm with no ladder to fix it.

There are personalities that can take over our auditory spaces and deplete our energy with ill-timed attempts at social connection. For example, there is “Deafening Daphne,” who chews loudly and sighs excessively. “Out Loud Oswald,” with no inner monologue, who reads his emails and Slack messages to no one in particular. Always with his volume on, there’s “Ear-Splitting Elroy,” with his phone chiming and his email pinging. And further, there’s “More to Say Maureen,” who follows you into the bathroom with her long-winded rants.

Feeling guilty complaining about these people? You shouldn’t. Auditory disruptions can dramatically reduce your ability to get things done. It behooves us to solve the problem of the noise-polluting coworker. Here are some tips you can use to get ahead of noise-driven annoyances in the workplace.

1. Create noise rules and share them publicly

During the pandemic, we built our own little auditory ecosystems. Most of us got surprisingly used to the house sounds that we initially hated: like dogs barking or lawns being mowed. And, whether you’re willing to admit it or not, you probably developed a few noisy habits yourself (I know of a friend who became “re-introduced” to death metal). Unfortunately, noise preferences are idiosyncratic: What feels like idle, background music to one person, feels like nails on a chalkboard to another. These ecosystems often don’t scale easily to the workplace.

Not surprisingly, our tolerance for other people’s noises at work is nonexistent; likewise, our ability to police the problem is also lacking. Before the pandemic, implicit norms guided our behavior at work. No one needed to tell someone, “Hey, stop talking to your mother while you’re in the bathroom,” it was implicitly assumed. But now that we’re out of practice, we need to build our norms back brick by brick, starting by stating explicitly what used to be implicit. Need a place to start? Post some mutually agreed upon office rules that tackle the low-level noise pollution we’re all guilty of contributing to (speaker phone guy, I’m talking to you).

Short and sweet works best:

“Need to make a personal call? Step outside please.”

“Please keep your text alerts on silent while in the office.”

“Love music at work? Great! Wear headphones.”

Yes, these rules will feel silly. But he science of the formation of norms has taught us, all you need is the help of a few well connected and well-liked people to promote and reinforce them to change behavior at work. For instance, a short email from one of your “social referents” that says, “Happy to be back, but I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say that chats with our doctors and divorce attorneys should be done in private” can move things along.

2. Redirect the social butterfly coworker

Forming social connections at work is critical to happiness in the workplace, but not when that social connection interrupts your flow by bursting into your office, distraught over a rude and abrasive coworker.

Further, empathic people really struggle with these noise polluters: They wind up stocking their offices with tissue instead of addressing the problem head on. The only strategy that works is one that is well thought out ahead of time. It’s not a matter of if that coworker can chat your ear off, it’s when. Schedule your noise polluter for a time that won’t disrupt your productivity. “Can’t wait to hear all about it at happy hour” will go down much more smoothly than “get out—now.”

3. Build your productivity around your ideal auditory hours

Most of us think deliberately about our daily “smart hours”—the times in the day when you’re most focused and least worn down. Efficient people build their schedules around those hours, but how often do we put noise pollution into the equation? Probably not that often. Unwelcome noise affects selective attention and impairs cognitive performance. In other words, it affects your ability to think. Find the times in the day when the office is the quietest (or the loudest, if that’s your vibe), locate the spaces you can occupy comfortably during those times, and schedule them into your weekly routine.

We can’t entirely avoid noise pollution at work, but we can work around it and find ways to reduce its effects on ourselves and those around us. And if you haven’t already, reach out to a coworker at least once a day and ask, “Am I being too loud?”

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