To Embrace or Tune Out? Maintaining Focus Among Office Noise

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There are ways to deal with office noise and chatter while maintaining your productivity and enjoying a collaborative working environment.

Everyone has a different threshold for noise. While some are very sensitive to it (a condition known as misophonia), others thrive on it and, in some cases, need it in order to sleep. With such a large spectrum of individual sensitivities to consuming sound, it’s no wonder that the office, which is increasingly an open environment, can be one of the toughest places to find a happy medium among employees.

If you think about noise from an evolutionary standpoint, hearing may be the most powerful of the five senses. For thousands of years, human survival was dependent on the ability to listen and react. Think about it: Unlike eyelids, which let us avoid seeing things, there isn’t a natural way for humans to shut off our ears. Hearing is so intertwined with our wellbeing that, when listening intently, we possess little surplus cognitive capacity to do much else. This explains why we can’t text while speaking with a friend and expect to be fully engaged in the conversation.

Despite the evolutionary importance of taking in sound, when it comes to a business setting, not being able to manage noise can impact our productivity, mood and overall wellbeing. The good news is, there are several ways to preserve your sanity without working from home five days a week.

1. Avoid the noise.

With many modern offices designed with an open plan, chances are your desk isn’t sheltered from office chatter. While having a colleague just a head turn away is helpful for bouncing off ideas, it can be incredibly distracting when you’re trying to finalize a presentation and they are coordinating pickup with the dog walker. Opting to find a quieter space, such as an empty conference room or coffee shop, lets you temporarily avoid office distractions. It’s also a healthy opportunity to get up and move away from your desk. Working in a new space can provide much-needed noise relief and a chance to refresh and refocus on work.

2. Cancel it out.

Another way to tune out is to purchase noise-canceling earphones or headsets to drown out the office soundtrack. This cuts down on distractions or irritation you might feel toward co-workers having too loud or too personal of conversations around you. For the frequent business traveler, noise-canceling earphones or headsets can be a lifeline on airplanes to ensure you’re able to take full advantage of micro-moments in coffee shops or time in the air. You’ll never even notice the crying child in the aisle behind you.

3. Change the soundscape.

Music, podcasts, audio books or even white noise recordings can essentially drown out the din with something more to your liking. Think about when you’re in a quiet hotel room and you hear every door click and elevator opening on your floor. That all fades out as soon as you turn the television or shower on and you only hear the sounds in your personal space. A comfortable pair of earphones and an interesting podcast will cancel out chatter and might even spark new creativity. How often have you come up with an idea while listening to radio news on the drive home? You can create that same free-thinking environment at your desk, and you’re much more apt to remember and act on the ideas.

These steps should ease noise-induced stress in the workplace, but if you still feel your blood pressure rising with the volume in the room, remember we choose to work in office environments because we value the collaboration. You might just find that the one conversation you were unable to tune out had some relevant insight for you.

Holger Reisinger

A member of Jabra’s Global Leadership Team and reporting directly to the CEO, I am head of product strategy and product management for Jabra’s professional audio solutions business.