Phones ringing, copiers and printers chugging away, computer keyboards tapping all day, co-workers chatting about, well, anything— it all leads to distracting noise in the office.

Share story


Phones ringing, copiers and printers chugging away, computer keyboards tapping all day, co-workers chatting about, well, anything — it all leads to distracting noise in the office.

As open workspaces and cubicle farms become the office norm, many workers are left to find ways to cope with the clamor.

Office noise isn’t just an annoyance; it can cut into productivity and health. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology found that noise in such spaces reduces the productivity of knowledge workers (those in jobs tied to words or numbers) by 66 percent.

Routine office noise can also increase levels of stress hormones, Cornell University researchers say. And a recent New York Times story cites a University of California report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of “speech privacy,” making it the top complaint in offices around the world.

The Greenbusch Group, based in Seattle, helps design pleasing acoustics for workplaces. President Julie Wiebusch says that so-called masking sounds (what many think of as white noise) are key — for noisy workplaces and too-quiet ones.

“It’s a controlled level of sound that is produced within the space, and it’s a controlled spectrum as well, so most people find the sound pleasing,” she says. “In fact, if it’s well done, you’re not really even aware that it’s there. [It] just makes it more difficult to overhear your neighbor’s conversation; you have a little bit of competing sound, so it sort of masks what’s going on around you.”

Those who don’t work in acoustically refined digs can turn to iPods or noise-canceling headphones for refuge. Beyond that, “there aren’t really a lot of options for just one workspace,” says Wiebusch.

Which leaves workers to manage with manners. Business-etiquette consultant Arden Clise, of Clise Etiquette in Seattle, says that being a good co-worker can make all the difference. (See the sidebar for her tips to be a courteous co-worker and help reduce noise.)

When all else fails, speak up. “If someone is talking too loud, politely say, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t concentrate’ or ‘Can you share that information in a meeting room or someplace more private?’ ” Clise says. “It’s absolutely OK to ask.”

That’s because it’s easy to slip. When office space is wide open, “you forget that people are working,” she says.

Be a considerate co-worker

Business-etiquette consultant Arden Clise, of Clise Etiquette in Seattle, offers these tips to help reduce office noise:

Turn down the volume. Noise carries pretty well in cube land, so it’s important to keep your voice down.

Get closer. Rather than yell or chat over the cubicle walls, get up and talk to your neighbor.

Get a room. Find a conference room or someplace private to talk about sensitive or confidential topics.

Don’t get too personal. You don’t want co-workers to hear your intimate details.

Pick up the phone. Avoid using the speakerphone.

Silence your ringtone. Turn your cellphone off or silence it when you leave your desk, or keep it on vibrate in your pocket so it doesn’t do the vibration dance at your desk.