Monday, July 10, 2017

Coping With Noise at Work

Updated on August 4, 2018 with some information about how I'm coping with noise at work now.
Do you work in a noisy office and find it difficult to concentrate on your work? Judging from the amount of blog posts I've read about noisy offices, it seems that you aren't alone! I've been there too, so I wrote this article about how I deal with noise at work.

Don't Give Up!

You may be tempted to quit your job over the level of noise. But I strongly recommend against leaving an otherwise good job over the level of noise. Your next job's environment may not be an improvement!

If you're on the verge of quitting your job, find someone at your company to talk to. Preferably, try to identify someone (like a manager or someone from HR) with the authority to improve the situation.

Don't Damage Your Hearing!

This should go without saying, but I'll say it: do not wear headphones and play music/noise at an uncomfortable volume. You can damage your hearing.

One Possible Solution: Music/Noise on Headphones

That being said, I've found that listening to music/noise on headphones at a comfortable volume is a good way to mask office sounds to an extent. It really depends on what sort of noise you are trying to manage.

I find that headphones are effective against these types of noise:
  • Infrequent, medium-volume noise (people eating crunchy foods, the clack of keyboards, that sort of thing)
  • Constant noise (air conditioner, computer fan noise, etc.)
  • Low-volume office conversations (co-workers using their "inside voices")
But I found that headphones don't help much against loud noises commonly experienced in open office spaces. Radios, people shouting (a common form of collaboration in open offices), and cell phones vibrating/ringing can all be louder than your headphones should be.

As far as I know, noise-cancelling headphones only mask constant noise. They're meant for use on trains and airplanes, not noisy offices, so I've never tried noise-cancelling headphones.

If you're looking for noise-isolating headphones to muffle sound, I wish you good luck! I've yet to find a pair that sounded great and isolated sound well enough for me to use on a daily basis.

Another Possibility: Earplugs/Earmuffs

Earplugs and earmuffs seem to do a better job than headphones of blocking sound. When properly used, they protect your ears from awful noises without a high risk of damaging your hearing. (I'm not a doctor, so I can't say that there's no risk involved, especially when you misuse earplugs.)

Be sure to do some research before buying earplugs or earmuffs. They're not built equally, and you can easily buy hearing protection that does not work.

There are a few downsides to wearing earplugs or earmuffs. I have yet to find a pair of earmuffs that were effective and comfortable to wear for more than an hour. Earplugs require constant replacement or cleaning. Both seem to make me feel disoriented after a while, but that could just be me.

Despite those downsides, good earplugs and earmuffs are quite effective of blocking most office noise. But even the best have their limits. One particularly noisy day, I put on some earmuffs (that were rated at 34 NRR) over some in-ear headphones, and I still heard people talking during quiet portions in the music. Both the noise level and my failed attempt to mask it were ridiculous.

My Solution: Give In (Seriously!)

After a while, it became obvious to me that blocking every annoying noise was impossible. Headphones didn't work, earplugs didn't work, and earmuffs were uncomfortable and didn't work in extreme cases.

So I did something that may sound crazy: I stopped trying to manage noise most of the time and let the distractions happen. And I became a happier person for it. Sure, I feel like I work slower than I used to when I wore headphones, but I am okay with trading a little bit of perceived productivity for my sanity.

If you're able to make the mental shift, I highly recommend just letting most of the noise go - I think you'll be happier (and possibly more productive) in the long run.

2018 Update - No, Wait, Headphones + Noise Is Best

As it turned out, the distractions of the office hurt my productivity and ability to concentrate on important tasks. I still keep a "don't try to eliminate distractions" mentality, but I put on headphones and listen to noise. This approach works for me, and it's the approach that I recommend to others.

Just make sure that you get comfortable headphones. For me, Beyerdynamic's DT-770 headphones are fantastic - they fit well and don't hurt my head after wearing them all day long.

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