How to cope with a noisy workplace?
October 12, 2010 3:16 AM   Subscribe

I work as a web developer in an open space, and unfortunately, I am the type of developers who needs silence in order to concentrate on my code. This is a small startup, where people leave their music, ringtones, and other noisy devices, open. There's noise through the whole day, and I'm having difficulties to be productive. I've informed my managers about this, but since they are quite happy with background music, they've disregarded my requests and needs. How do you cope with such a situation? Are you aware of any good corporate "noise policy"? What do you think I should do?
posted by lipsum to Work & Money (46 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Use earplugs? Listen to music or white noise on some decent earphones?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:20 AM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Really? Sit in an open space with ear-plugs? Does that sound appropriate to you? I find that repulsive.
posted by lipsum at 3:25 AM on October 12, 2010

I got the impression everyone else in the office was doing it too - and frankly letting your music annoy other people in the office is way more repulsive than listening to it on headphones that don't leak sound.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:27 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why would headphones/earphones be inappropriate (or repulsive!) in this situation? You need quiet to work and since your employers and coworkers are not at all bothered by their sound levels, the next obvious step would be blocking the sound.
posted by crankylex at 3:37 AM on October 12, 2010

I work in an open-plan office with lots of ringing phones and talking. I need to screen this out, mentally, to do any work. I do it with in-ear headphones and music (chilled out ambient most of the time, techno when I'm on deadline). I've discussed this at length with my coworkers and they know a) I'm definitely not an antisocial jerk but need to do this to work and b) waving in my line of sight is all that's required to get my attention.

Getting the workplace to 'quieten down' is a non-starter. Some people are simply more sensitive to ambient noise than others. If this is really bothering you and you're not prepared to listen to your own music or white noise, can you ask for an office with a door you can close?

Maybe direct them towards Joel Spolsky's thoughts on the best environment for developers, excerpting the bit about private space and quiet.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:38 AM on October 12, 2010

2nding earplugs or headphones. You see it regularly at school libraries and other places people need to concentrate.

Also, it could just be the tone of your question here, but it sorta sounds like you want everyone else to change to fit your needs. Maybe, if you still want to change your workplace, you could suggest a smaller change, like the addition of a quiet room, rather than trying to change the general work culture.
posted by mercredi at 3:41 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Welcome to a world of working alongside other human beings. I find earplugs or over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones help me get stuff done at coffee shops and the like. Don't knock it until you try it.

Either that, or play your stuff louder than the next person. That might give the necessary impetus to mgmt to change the policy. Or perhaps fire you. Hard to say.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:43 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is a very common situation, and I don't think you're going to get what you want. A lot of people like to work with background music, and even feel it makes them more productive. And people need to take calls and talk at normal volumes on the phone, or discuss things with each other. In the three different work environments I've shared, all have been open; the first had two receptionists answering phones all day and chatting about holidays the rest of the time, the second had developers working alongside marketing people, the company director, and the receptionist, all of whom used the phone constantly. The third environment was six people crammed into a small office where people took turns to put on their music (at a reasonable volume).

But even though you can't demand a silent workspace, you can at least choose the sounds you work to. Find some calm, non-distracting music, invest in some decent headphones and you'll probably find that you adjust quite quickly.

Another alternative would be to arrange to work from home for some of the time - if you can prove that you're more productive working that way, maybe they'll see a benefit.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:46 AM on October 12, 2010

Oh actually, this Joel Spolsky article is better, from a principles perspective anyway.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:49 AM on October 12, 2010

Thanks for all the answers. I am kinda pissed at the situation, but I am also very lenient towards my co-workers. I try not to bug them on each and every bit of sound, and demand silence only when I *really* need it.

I also agree with those who think I am not going to get what I want. Which is not "quieting down the office", but rather some consideration and a proper respond to my needs (disregarding one's needs only transforms the problem into a new one).

I particularly liked the link to Joel Spolsky's text. Thank you.

One more thing: I know that if someone had said to me that my Music or whatever-sound distracts them, I would've apologize and turn it down, or use headphones. I expect the same from my co-workers. The fact that they are apathetic about it, is the one that really hurts.
posted by lipsum at 3:55 AM on October 12, 2010

Yeah, you'll never get a quiet workplace. I'm dealing with the same thing at the moment; the guy in the cube next to me hums mindlessly the entire day.

Try getting some big ear muffs, which make it clear you're trying to shut out the sounds. These usually work better than even the best earplugs. Or listen to music, like everybody else.
posted by beerbajay at 4:06 AM on October 12, 2010

I work for a large technology company where people can be boisterous during the day. Those who want peace and quiet end up using earplugs or headphones. Can you expense a good, comfortable pair of in-ear or closed over-ear headphones? (Standard issue where I work is the Sennheiser HD280 Pro and it is generally fairly comfortable and reduces noise.)
posted by kdar at 4:12 AM on October 12, 2010

lipsumPoster: "I expect the same from my co-workers. The fact that they are apathetic about it, is the one that really hurts"

You seem to think that your way is the only proper way. YOu have to realize that for some people, if the place was quiet like you seem to think it should be, they would be even more distracted than you are right now.
posted by notsnot at 4:16 AM on October 12, 2010 [9 favorites]

I also work in a noisy open-plan office. Closed ear headphones are the way to go, when I put on my AKG K171s which don't even have active noise cancelling (incidentally, noise cancelling only works for low frequency noise like fans or jet engines) they block out virtually everything, even when I'm not listening to music. When I am, I hear absolutely nothing.
posted by atrazine at 4:34 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

This really does sound like you think you're right and everyone else should change. Earplugs are repulsive? It hurts that your coworkers are "apathetic" about... not realizing you work better in total silence? It's not clear from your question or follow-up comments whether you've actually told your coworkers that you work better in silence, and even if you have, it's the kind of preference that other people have to constantly be mindful of, and might just not be used to. And, really, if everyone else in the office works best with a certain amount of background noise, is it reasonable to ask all of them to be silent for you?

Also, it's impossible to achieve total silence at work. If the music and chatter is gone, you will still hear your coworkers typing, shifting in their seats, and sniffling and digesting and clearing their throats - which is far worse.

I've done earplugs at work before, because for me listening to headphones is just trading one distraction for another. It's okay. If you're worried that you'll look passive-aggressive, get some largish headphones that cover your ears.

All that said, most offices have a headphones-only music policy, either explicit or implied, and that's one reasonable change. If your supervisors won't address it, maybe suggest it politely to your coworkers or bring it up at a staff meeting.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:35 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have a disability which means I have a legitimate claim to ask for quiet working conditions. I have been allowed to work in a quiet lab, where my Bose noise-cancelling headphones plus white noise are enough to screen out the inevitable noise that comes with coexisting with other humans, even ones who also cherish quiet.

In a corporate setting, no attempt was ever made to accommodate my disability and I was always looked upon as spoiled. In any case if one person wants noise and 20 people want quiet, the noisy person will always win because it's like rock-paper-scissors, so there is not really any use in doing anything other than accept this.

In corporate settings I have always had to turn my headphones up well above danger levels in order to even partially screen out the noise, and I was still surrounded by people who literally shouted all day long because, well, that's what they liked doing, fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. I was told by a hearing specialist that deafness is going to be an inevitable result of playing my headphones so loud, but I can see no other option other than to accept this as the cost of being allowed to earn a living.
posted by tel3path at 4:41 AM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

So you wearing earplugs to adjust your environment to meet your needs is repulsive but everyone else changing their behaviour to accommodate your needs and preferences would be fine?
Lots of people can't concentrate in silence - for them its the noise equivalent of a blank page, sure they could all bring their own personal music players and headphones (but then they'd be wearing headphones in an open space - which you say is repulsive?!) but it seems like you're the only one who has a problem with the noise.
posted by missmagenta at 4:41 AM on October 12, 2010 [8 favorites]

This is why open-plan offices are barbaric.

When I worked in one I got some hearing protectors from the hardware store. It worked relatively well and to me they are a lot more comfortable to wear for long periods than earplugs are.
posted by enn at 4:57 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your environment is unlikely to change, and you'll be happier if you accept that. Next best solution is good noise-canceling headphones. I like a headset better than earbuds because people can tell I'm unable to hear them. Lots of people use headphones at work for this exact reason.

You might be happier at work if you look carefully at your attitude. You use a lot of fairly loaded language, and it may create problems for you.
posted by theora55 at 4:58 AM on October 12, 2010

Try to arrange to work from home. When you do have to go to the office, try not to be so overly-sensitive.
posted by ovvl at 5:09 AM on October 12, 2010

One more thing: I know that if someone had said to me that my Music or whatever-sound distracts them, I would've apologize and turn it down, or use headphones. I expect the same from my co-workers. The fact that they are apathetic about it, is the one that really hurts

Dude, they are not there to cater to your special snowflake productivity needs. They really, really are not. The office consensus is that the majority of people are comfortable working in an environment you consider noisey. They are absolutely not going to change the environment to suit you. It isn't going to happen, nor is it reasonable for you to expect it to.

So what people in this thread are more or less saying is:

If you cannot control the environment, the only thing you can control is your own experience of it. Ergo, get earplugs or noise cancelling headphones.

There is literally nothing else you can do except quit.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:17 AM on October 12, 2010 [8 favorites]

It is completely common, and not rude, to wear noise-canceling headphones in this sort of situation, as everyone is telling you.

Or work from home. If you're sitting at a terminal coding, it doesn't matter where you are sitting.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:25 AM on October 12, 2010

I actually think that, even if your office were already pretty quiet, you would work better with some noise-canceling headphones on playing some white noise. I read somewhere that people often have great ideas while in the shower because it is basically an isolation chamber. The water makes the white noise and most of the surroundings are featureless. It creates an almost perfect thinking environment.

Ideally, you'd have white noise in your ears and fill your visual range with one solid color while you think. It should make your entire brain work on whatever it is you need to think about but obviously, you can't do that work but the white noise alone should help.

Is this the only issue on which your coworkers/managers have disregarded your needs? It might be that, having only heard your side of the story, your request is more demanding that you make it out to be. If we heard from you managers, they might say that your request is unreasonable or that there was something they didn't like about the way you made the request. I don't think that is the case, I'm just playing devil's advocate for a moment. If they disregard other requests that are more reasonable then there might be larger issues.
posted by VTX at 5:33 AM on October 12, 2010

I've informed my managers about this, but since they are quite happy with background music, they've disregarded my requests and needs.
Unless something is missing here, no they haven't. They've compared your requests and needs to those of your colleagues and made a decision you don't like. That != "disregard". Wear headphones or earplugs, or quit.
posted by caek at 5:35 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ear defenders are a cheap alternative to noise-cancelling headphones. These are the ones I have. You probably wouldn't want to wear them all day, but they are reasonably comfortable for a couple of hours of focused effort.
posted by tomcooke at 5:44 AM on October 12, 2010

I also work as a web developer at a small startup, and I share your problem. My solution involves being the only one in the office, and rigorous task organization: I come in early, I stay late, and I get a lot of my difficult work done when no one else is around. During the bulk of the workday, I do easier things that I can concentrate on in the noise-there are always plenty of these, if you wear a lot of hats like you have to at a startup. I can't design a new module in the noise, but I can fix that stupid IE bug or help the marketing guy use the CMS or respond to the customer support tickets.
posted by Kwine at 5:59 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

This really does sound like you think you're right and everyone else should change.

I just want to point out that this is a VERY common problem for developers, especially ones who aren't in their 20s. While not all developers need quiet, and while some even like noise, there are many of them who really can't work in a noisy environment. Depending on what sort of coding they're doing, it may be continual, rigorous intellectual work all day. Imagine trying to do complex math homework (or even arithmetic) with someone talking next to you.

So while the OP doesn't have the right to special treatment because he's a special snowflake, he SHOULD be given the standard tools of his trade, and quiet is (or should be) one of them. Alas, many companies that hire developers don't understand what developers need. No one says to a developer, "You want a COMPUTER? What are you, a special snowflake?" No one blasts a stereo when someone on the bomb squad is trying to diffuse a bomb, either.

I am extremely sensitive to noise. Even "white noise" bothers me. I found that with most earplugs and headphones, I could still hear murmurings. Those might not bother you, but they bother me. So I got these:

They are not headphones, they are ear protection for shooting galleries. They REALLY kill the sound. And if you can still hear ANYTHING while wearing them, add in-ear earplugs and you'll be totally deaf. Note: if you hate the way those look, there are similar products that look more like traditional headphones. I'll link them, below, but I can't vouch for them, because I've only tried the one I liked to above.

= more =
posted by grumblebee at 6:19 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

posted by toastchee at 6:38 AM on October 12, 2010

The reality that headphones are needed in your situation (unless you can go work from home, etc.) has been covered; I'm dropping in to recommend, which is a free white (or pink or brown) noise generator I use and like. It's great.
posted by hansbrough at 6:40 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Toastchee beat me to the punch! :)
posted by hansbrough at 6:41 AM on October 12, 2010

OP, I want you to imagine that you have the opposite problem. All day long, you surround yourself with sound because you need the stimulation to work.

And then one day you go to work and everyone there is stone-cold silent. No one makes a noise. You try to assimilate, but you need some stimulation, so you suggest background music be piped through the office. Your managers do not make the change.

Now, is this a hurtful, personal attack? Is it just ignoring your needs? No, it is responding to the cultural norm. The majority in the office have chosen silence, and the managers take the path of least resistance. In this mythical office, the norm is silence; in your real office, the norm is noise.

I say this as someone who needs silence to sleep or when I really need to concentrate, just as you do: you can't ask everyone else to change. If I wanted to play music, yes, I would wear headphones out of courtesy. But the converse should also apply: if the norm is music and noise, I should be willing to wear headphones if I am bucking the trend.

So I think you really need to drop all the "repulsive" comments and the hurt tone and just accept that this is the culture of your office. Anything else would be counter-productive, and isn't the ultimate goal for you to be a productive member of the team, rather than the outsider you already feel you are now? Continuing to insist that others change their ways for you will only increase this divisiveness.

Relent, gracefully, and make a change for your own benefit.
posted by misha at 6:43 AM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Breathe..... Making this better should be easy....
Take your time and build a collection of solutions. Noise cancelling phones, earplugs, white noise, music of your own. Switch them in and out based on your current needs. The choices will help you feel like the ball is back in your court..... and it will be.
posted by Studiogeek at 7:14 AM on October 12, 2010

The OP didn't say that people who make noise are repulsive. He said that HE'D be repulsive if he wore earphones in an open space. (I disagree.)

Really? Sit in an open space with ear-plugs? Does that sound appropriate to you? I find that repulsive.

I think he meant it would be repulsive to be that anti-social.

Is it really strange to feel hurt if you tell your boss/workmates your needs and they ignore you?

The fact that they are apathetic about it, is the one that really hurts.

"Hey, since you hired me to be a bricklayer, I'll need some bricks."

"Whatever, dude."

I realize that you NEED bricks in order to do bricklaying, while it's possible for some developers to work in a noisy environment. But, really, this need for quiet is very common amongst developers. Look how many have said "me too" in this thread. Read the literature on what developers need, e.g. the article linked to. This is not an absurd, strange need. Maybe it is strange for office workers in general, but it's not strange for developers.

It's not hurtful if the OP asks for quiet and his boss says, "I'm sorry. I can understand your need, but I just can't ask that of everyone. Maybe you should get some earplugs. In fact, the company will pay for them." It IS hurtful -- or it would be for me -- if they boss said some version of "Whatever. Get over it."

OP, this won't help you now, but if you're like many developers, you won't be working for your startup forever. I highly recommend that you make quiet a part of future job searches. I look for this when I go on interviews. I don't demand a private office, because that's rare nowadays, but I ask if there's a quiet place I can work if I need to (and if I can have a laptop, so I can carry it there) or if I can work at home if the office gets too noisy. I am careful to not say this in a condescending way, like I need to get away from all the obnoxious noisy people. I just explain it's a need of mine.

Also, I've discovered that in a conflict between people who like noise and people who like quiet, it's REALLY hard for hurtful condescension to stay out of the discussion. Quiet people can easily come across as Dad, teacher or stern librarian. Noisy people can easily come across as callous revelers who don't give a shit about anyone else.

Note that this simple issue is fraught for most people. Quiet people have spent decades enduring and fighting noise that drives them crazy. And they've spend decades being told, by more noisy people, to just chill. People who like noise really can't (in general) understand the needs of people who like quiet. To them, it is always going to sound like special snowflake stuff.

Meanwhile, people who like or need a little noise have been shushed repeatedly all their lives. They are sick of it. People like you and me tend to not understand that they really DO need the noise in order to work or enjoy their work.

It would be really great if both sides would quit the condescension. But they won't. Assume the other side won't. Be the bigger person. Because if you don't, chances are no one will.
posted by grumblebee at 7:44 AM on October 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Earplugs, headphones, working from home, or new job. They're not likely to change their policy or put up walls.
posted by thatone at 7:47 AM on October 12, 2010

Is there a closet somewhere that you could commandeer and use for quiet work? This would probably bring up a whole slew of new issues (isolation, perception of privilege, etc) but I just wanted to throw it out there.
posted by CathyG at 8:18 AM on October 12, 2010

Nthing me too. I use noise cancelling headphones when I need to concentrate. When people see me with headphones on, they avoid interrupting me for frivolous reasons. Added benefit.
posted by aeighty at 8:43 AM on October 12, 2010

I completely disagree with the people who think this is 'special snowflake stuff'. I have this problem too and only recently found out that in my case there was a neurological reason for it. I cope by working late at night when everybody else has gone home. In the afternoon I do all the stuff that doesn't demand concentration and needs interaction with people. I also will prefer to work a weekend, if I have a very urgent tasks as then I can guarantee not having to cope with noise and distraction. It really makes a mess of living by a normal schedule, however it does work.
posted by Flitcraft at 9:54 AM on October 12, 2010

I worked in a huge, open-plan warehouse office where most of us were set up at four-person areas with walls that only came up to your hips.

It was very quiet. But we were all editors and designers, so there was a commonality of work style and culture that meant that of course, you used earphones if you wanted to listen to music, you talked quietly on the phone, and if you needed to ask someone something, you got up and went over to talk to them rather than shouting across the office.

Now I work in semi-cubeland; there are three cubes down one side of the hall, and offices on the other side. My co-workers are not terribly quiet - meetings and speakerphone conference calls are held in offices (and occasionally cubes!) without closing the doors. People shout across the hall to each other.

I'm still an editor. I still need and like the kind of quiet I used to get in the giant warehouse. And I still use earphones. Getting my co-workers to change their habits would be much more work, effort, and frustration than changing mine.

This is also in the US, and I've never worked an office job where earphones were considered rude or gauche. YMMV.
posted by rtha at 10:46 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you work from home and go in to the office once in a while for meetings and the like.
posted by chunking express at 2:57 PM on October 12, 2010

If you're going the headphone/earphone route, consider the following:

- Mount one of those bicycle mirrors on your monitor so you can see when someone creeps up behind you, and react to them before they're forced to uncomfortably tap you on the shoulder, potentially startling you.

- Put a humorous but informative sign on your desk. I dunno... "Genius at work. Wave to get my attention", or something. Yeah, I know that's not humorous, but you get the drift - a light-hearted way of letting people know that just because you're wearing headphones, you're not completely locked off from communicating with them.
posted by Diag at 3:19 PM on October 12, 2010

I tried earplugs once. I didn't even get to lunchtime before somebody said to me, "hey you know what you should do -just write "fuck you" on the outside of each earplug, ha ha"
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 3:32 PM on October 12, 2010

misha: "OP, I want you to imagine that you have the opposite problem. All day long, you surround yourself with sound because you need the stimulation to work. "

Ultimately, this comes down to who wears the obnoxious headgear: the people demanding music at all times of day, or the people demanding silence. Given the price of noise cancelling headphones vs normal ones, the coasian choice is obvious. Put some damn headphones on if you want to listen to your Pandora stream.
posted by pwnguin at 5:01 PM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

And yeah, people who won't shut up in an open concept office are pretty annoying.
posted by chunking express at 5:04 PM on October 12, 2010

pwnguin, I actually agree with you, as someone who likes *quiet* when I am working or reading. But the office environment where the OP works is completely the inverse to our realities.

I'm just trying to show the OP the conflicting view, playing devil's advocate, to illustrate that the situation is not a personal attack against the OP, just a weird office dynamic.
posted by misha at 5:20 PM on October 12, 2010

OP, I can totally sympathize. For some reason people where I work seem to love open plan (not even cube walls!) offices, which drive me berserk. In addition to noise there are usually things flying through the air, etc. Yes, yes, all very we're-so-weird Silicon Valley and all, I guess I'm just getting old.

I really, really miss having an office (had one for 5 years before, offices to me are a huge huge productivity boost for developers, but apparently thats not a widespread view). That being said, it seems like a lot of people really like the open plan offices, so people like us are basically stuck. Answer really is headphones or earplugs or something. Also I work from home 2 days a week or so. And I work really late so the office gets pretty empty. But I'd trade all sorts of perks for having a private office again....

(There seems to be an age component too, the biggest open-plan-boosters are all 20 somethings, often right out of college. Noise/distraction bothers me now more than it did 10 years ago).
posted by wildcrdj at 7:12 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's SO weird that in this day & age, people like developers who could basically do their job anywhere with an internet connection STILL have to go into some lame office environment everyday. WHY? Not sure where you live, but seems like alot of companies in the startup world, especially in the silicon valley are beginning to see beyond this outdated paradigm. Could you try presenting a proposal or something where you could work from home part of the week on a trial basis? A lot of companies are doing this now, mine for instance. Since we started doing this everyone's productivity has increased exponentially, & everyone is happier. I used to almost HATE my coworkers bc of their irritating habits, now that I only have to see them 2x a week everything is fine ;)
posted by ellevira at 12:29 AM on October 14, 2010

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