my office space is completely open and I can’t concentrate

A reader writes:

I work for a tiny nonprofit in a small office where the 5-6 of us work. The way it’s laid out, there is a central pod with desks and dividers, two executive offices with thin sliding doors, a separate kitchen with printing station that also has a sliding door, and a “conference room” that’s actually just a space with a half wall blocking it off. This means that if anyone is having a meeting, it’s loud and distracting. And the doors to the offices don’t really block sound either, unless the people inside are whispering.

My work isn’t confidential (although sometimes I overhear things that I wonder if I should be hearing) and any calls I have to make can either be done from my desk or the kitchen for privacy/quietness, but I’ve found that it’s really hard to focus when anyone is having a meeting or call. Even blasting music in my earbuds hasn’t blocked it out completely. Sometimes it’s dead quiet in the office and no problem, but other times it gets noisy and drives me crazy. There’s no way to change the physical space, so do I have any hope of making the situation better?

This is a terrible set-up! If the conference room had full walls rather than half walls, you’d have some hope of making this better. It still wouldn’t be great, but if people got in the habit of having meetings or long phone calls in there, it would be a significant improvement. But for the sake of blocking sound, half walls are pretty similar to no walls.

Do others in your office struggle with this too? I’m guessing at least one other person does. You might be able to raise the issue as a group and ask about whether it’s possible to get those half walls turned into full walls and/or get real doors on the executive offices.

It might even be worth asking about looking for a different office space; it’s not uncommon for small organizations to move periodically and if you have a lease, it’s going to be up at some point and it’s not crazy to raise the prospect of looking for a space that’s better suited to your staff. And who knows, maybe they’ve been in this space for a while and it worked fine when it was just two or three people, but it’s not working now that you’ve added staff. (Obviously, be sensitive to your context on this one. If the organization has a shoestring budget and can only afford this space because of some special break, raising the prospect of a move would seem tone-deaf. But there are lots of contexts where it would be fine — and indeed, issues like this do drive some organizations to move.)

But if moving or real walls and doors aren’t an option, then the answer to your question of whether you have any hope of making things better is … probably not, unfortunately. If you’re stuck in this space exactly as it is now, then you’re going to be hearing other people’s conversations pretty regularly, and it’s going to be distracting and annoying. Headphones are good, but you said even loud music doesn’t work all the time.

One other option would be asking about working from home on days when you really need to concentrate, or even seeing if you can take your work somewhere else (like a park or a coffee shop, if the type of work you do allows that). But ultimately, this may be part of the package when you’re working in a small, poorly-constructed office.

{ 114 comments… read them below }

  1. Fishgal*

    Have you looked into noise canceling head phones for days it gets loud? They’re so much better than war buds

    1. Augusta Sugarbean*

      War buds sound awesome! Seriously, though, can you or anyone else recommend a brand/model? I’ve searched around a little but it’d be nice to read some recommendations from people who use them regularly in an open office setting.

      1. Misophonic Gal*

        Personally I use Bose noise-canceling headphones. It was hard for me to justify spending so much on a pair of headphones, and I’m extremely lucky that I’m in a position that I could… but the peace and quiet they help foster in a loud environment has been priceless.

        1. Lexi Kate*

          2nd on the boise they are so expensive but worth every penny when you work in a loud office. I’ve tried the cheaper brands and they help some but the boise over the ear ones are unbeatable.

        2. Horton hears*

          I also like Bose but I find that the over-ear, noise cancelling ones sometimes affect my inner ear (feels kind of like putting in ear plugs or going underwater or on a plane or something). Maybe I have sensitive ears though. I have Bose earbuds that do help block out external noise to an extent without that sensation.

        3. long time lurker*

          Another +1 for the Bose in-ear noise cancelling headphones. My employer actually bought me a pair for work as part of a disability accommodation (I do a lot of work that requires deep concentration and I have significant ADHD and they weren’t able to give me a private space), and they’ve worked incredibly well to mitigate the issue. If cost is an issue, OP, perhaps your employer could spring for a pair to be used at work as an accommodation?

      2. dlw*

        I use Bose Quiet Comfort headphones. I broke down and shelled out the big bucks because my next door neighbor (townhouse – we share a wall) is a jerk who loves his loud, bass heavy music. And also likes to shout and whoop it up with his friends on his back deck.

        The headphones arrived right before a holiday weekend. Jerk-o has his buds over and cranks up the music. I put on my new headphones and turn on the noise cancelling and – blessed silence! They work REALLY well. And they almost completely drown out voices, especially when you’re playing music (at normal volume) through them. Totally worth the money.

        1. Kris*

          Thank you for the recommendation! My office is moving to an open floor plan in March and I’m dreading it. I need something to drown out all the noise

        2. Prof. Murph*

          Another plug for the Bose noise cancelling headphones. These have made a real difference – at home (apartment living) and at work. I thought they were ridiculously expensive for headphones (and they are) but they’ve been worth every penny – I use them almost every day.

      3. The Other Katie*

        The Bose Quiet Comfort 25 ones are not the budget option,but they work brilliantly. (The QC35s are similar but wireless if that’s something you care about.)

      4. Clao*

        I have the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC (under 200 dlls I believe?). They are bluetooth and they are just amazing. I have a noise sensitivity meaning that if there is a sound, I will hear it and I will become annoyed by it, however loud it is.
        This headphones are SO GOOD. Sleeping even though my upstairs neighbor plays the bass. Check. Sleeping on an airplane next to toddler screaming for 2 hours. Check. Preventing to hurt the people that stand outside my window and have incredibly loud conversations: also check.

      5. Bored IT Guy*

        Not standalone noise-cancelling headphones, but our office just ordered new headsets that can be used with our desk phone/softphone, and we tested several different models.

        I personally chose the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC, which are a “over the ear” rather than a “completely surrounds the ear” style. Some other folks on my team chose the Plantronics Voyager 8200, which surrounds the ear completely. (For me, the 8200 was slightly heavier than the Focus, and that was the deciding factor). We also had 2 people that liked the Jabra Evolve 75 headset, although I wasn’t thrilled with the sound quality when I tested that one.

      6. Headphones count as PPE!*

        I just bought Shure SE215s at the beginning of the summer. They don’t have active noise cancelling, but they’re basically ear plugs. I’ve been extremely pleased with my purchase, and they block machine noise and conversations in my lab better than my previous over ear isolating headphones. I also found they’re flat enough that I can wear them in bed :-)

      7. Sarah G*

        I recommend Isotunes noise-isolating earbuds. The only downside is that the battery life isn’t great (3.5-4 hrs), and also the foam earpieces don’t last all that long. Still, they work well in an open office space.

      8. A CAD Monkey*

        The ones I use at work are Sennheiser CX300 II (~40$ on Amazon)
        My home/travel ones are SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones (~100$ on Amazon)
        With both of these, I have the volume low (5-7%) and can’t hear anything anyone says to me until I remove one of the buds.

    2. Still here*

      Probably just want a good set of industrial ear plugs or a set of noise – blocking ear muffs. Noise cancelling headphones usually don’t block out all noise… They filter out repetitive sounds like airlane engines and let things like speech through (although usually limited to a maximum volume).

      1. Mynona*

        This is my set-up right now and it cuts out a good amount of noise but the over-ear mufflers exert a lot of pressure and are uncomfortable after 30 mins. Because they are designed for industrial use and cost $16.

    3. Misophonic Gal*

      Seconded on noise canceling headphones, if you can afford them. They are expensive, but they have helped me tremendously. I use them with a white noise app most of the day on my phone, and will overlay instrumental music with it when I really need to concentrate. The white noise app blocks out the bulk of the background noise for me, and makes an open office (mostly) bearable… and the music helps serve as a distraction from focusing on noises.

    4. Nessun*

      Joining the vote for Bose noise-cancellation headphones! Mine are several years old now, and still work perfectly. I got them for a very long flight originally (I don’t sleep on planes and need the noise stimulation to keep from going crackers), and have found them extremely useful for work. I’m in a total open-concept office, no cubicles, meeting rooms in the centre, “pod” desk spaces from one end of the building to the other. Sometimes even just turning on the noise-cancellation function without listening to anything can be helpful, though I do prefer music or a podcast.

    5. Teapot librarian*

      Has anyone considered the possibility that Bose might be in cahoots with the office design people, encouraging open plan offices so that they get more customers? (I kid, I kid.)

    6. Mynona*

      For the recommenders/happy owners of noise-cancelling headphones: do these $300 devices actually silence the noise without white noise or music? I mean loud talker two cubes over noise, not distant babbling…

      1. The Doctor is Out*

        Yes they do cancel quite a bit of noise without music or white noise. Great on airplanes, when using a vacuum cleaner, etc.

      2. Misophonic Gal*

        On their own, they certainly muffle some of the noise, but I still find that I need to have white noise playing in order to nullify things like a loud coworker.

    7. FritzieTudor*

      If you can’t afford fancy headphones, I’ve had good success listening to pink noise (like white noise but a little less harsh). Sometimes I’d play the pink noise in one app and music in another so they layered together. In all my transit travels, I’ve only encountered a couple of truly loud talkers whose voices managed to break through. You can find noise tracks for free online. I bought a 60-minute track on Amazon for 99c.

    8. Vermonter*

      Seconding. OP, please invest in some noise canceling headphones instead of cranking up the volume in your ear buds. It’s really bad for your hearing. (I learned this the hard way and my ears ring almost constantly because of it.)

  2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    It’s not necessarily fun to listen to, but try using a white noise app on your headphones instead of music. You might go a little batty if you do it long term (I’ve gotten to where I enjoy it because I can really hone in on what I’m doing but YMMV), however if it’s just during periods you REALLY need to focus, it could help.

    1. Gen*

      There’s a website called mynoise that has specific white noise settings for blocking speech that can be stacked, i’ve found them pretty effective, especially when layered with binaural beats for concentration

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        My dentist uses a white noise machine to drown out the sounds from the rest of the building. That’s what hooked me. Now I use white noise whenever I need to drown out the outside noise (sleeping, trying to focus, etc.)

      2. SarahTheEntwife*

        I love that site! They have lots of different sound options so it’s not all the classic staticky white-noise noise.

    2. hayling*

      I use the Calm app for this. I pick a “background” and set it to “meditate” for an hour. It’s super helpful for concentrating. I do also often use noise-cancelling headphones—expensive, but worth the money for sure.

    3. Trig*

      My partner loses his mind on airplanes when people are talking loudly or children are crying. Both of our lives were improved by good quality noise cancelling over-ear headphones and a “background noise” app. The one he uses has a bunch of options, including a forest stream, a ship at sea, a country evening, etc. Each ‘environment’ has additional ambient sounds you can layer in too, like birds chirping, ropes creaking, or crickets singing.

      It’s great on the plane, and works surprisingly well in his office too, with noisy co-workers sitting in close proximity, snacking on loud food all day or making random little mouth noises.

      Best part, I don’t have to hear him complain about any of it anymore!

    4. McWhadden*

      I’ve done that and a “fan” app. Both work OK. But recently I’ve taken to streaming classical music. It’s not distracting the way lyrics can be.

      1. LizB*

        Classical music or instrumental movie soundtracks are my go-to concentration noise. Sometimes I’ll add white noise (I love rainymood [dot] com for rain noise) on top.

      2. Kat Em*

        I double up! I play rain sounds from the Rainy Mood site and then do quiet classical piano (usually Satie, sometimes Chopin) layered on top of that. It’s the perfect combo for focus.

    5. Turtle Candle*

      I have found that white noise that simulates voices (look for apps that have a “coffee shop” or “student lounge” type white noise setting) are the best hands down for masking speech. They are not intelligible voices, but they really help with distracting calls/discussions. I just wish I could get the best of both worlds (music with a chatter overlay)!

      1. Emelle*

        One of those white noise apps had a Hogwarts House playlist. You could choose your house common room, the library, great hall and maybe the Leaky Cauldron to listen to. It was pretty cool and I lost my bookmark to that page.

    6. Stan*

      Noise cancelling headphones and A Soft Murmur white noise app have been a lifesaver!

      A Soft Murmur is available as an app or web-based. Coffee shop mixed with rain is my go to mix.

    7. Ealasaid*

      I lovelovelove Ambient-Mixer (.com), they let you create your own complex ambient soundscapes, or use ones created by others. My current work mix is a thunderstorm with some other stuff mixed in. I’m putting a link in the Website field for this comment.

    8. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I was also going to suggest the OP talk to whomever is in charge of facilities to see if whole room/space noise cancelling/buffering devices can be used. There are a ton of products out there and they really do make a difference.

      There are also desktop ones but I feel like that is treating the symptom and not the root cause.

  3. H.C.*

    Also, maybe it’s worthwhile to invest in noise-cancelling headphones or temporary partitions, provided it doesn’t create safety issues or you aren’t expected to keep your eyes & ears on alert.

  4. Gingerblue*

    An office like this sounds like my vision of hell.

    They’re pretty expensive, but you might want to look into a pair of good noise-cancelling headphones. I bought some recently, and they make an enormous difference for me in whether I can work in situations like cafes, offices with other people talking, etc. (It’s way better than just my old earbuds.) Your office shouldn’t be set up in a way that requires expensive personal investments to get work done, but, well.

    1. Almost Violet Miller*

      I was just drafting in my head an e-mail very similar to the post above. Maybe it’d be slightly out of topic here but on the Friday open thread could you & all others owning noise-cancelling headphones share the brands/models you are satisfied with in the office/while traveling for work? Thanks a lot

      1. Gingerblue*

        I actually just posted a second comment with my rec, but it has a link and is in moderation. (If it’s too off-topic here, Alison, apologies, and I’ll follow up on the Friday or Saturday thread.)

        1. Gingerblue*

          Aaah, I actually misthreaded it. It’s below. (Short version: I like the Sony WH1000XM2s.)

      2. UKApplepie*

        I bought some Bose Quiet Comfort 35s. They retail at ~£300 in the UK, but I got them at factory outlet for ~£200, and they are worth every single penny. It’s seriously worth saving the money for them – I use them when travelling and in my flat for the noise cancelling, and making phone calls through them.

        1. AvonLady Barksdale*

          I own the same pair and I LOVE them. They retail at about 350 USD and I managed to get them as a gift. Wireless, too. I don’t love making phone calls with them because I think the mic is a touch too sensitive, but they are so good for everything else. (And I do use them for calls, even with the over-sensitive mic.)

    2. Emily, Admin Extraordinaire*

      Noise-cancelling headphones CAN be expensive, but don’t have to be. I just bought a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 earbuds, for $35 on Amazon. Tried them on the light-rail train the other day. The difference between having the noise-cancelling function off and then when I turned it on was astounding. The expensive Bose ones might block out 95% of sound compared to my 90%, but honestly, the extra 5% isn’t worth $300 dollars to me. These ones are wired rather than Bluetooth, so that brings the cost down too.

    3. LIMEPINK*

      The company could purchase headphones for their team for less money than moving…. maybe OP can bring it up as a solution that is employer-funded!

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Yeah, I think this is a very natural place to start. Find a few people who agree, and bring this up at a staff meeting. Maybe you can shift the practice of having meetings of more than 2-3 people in the central conference room since there’s no privacy and it’s distracting to staff.

    2. Washi*

      Or since it’s such a tiny organization, maybe some meetings could be held in an executive’s office? If there’s only 5-6 people total, probably at least one executive is in a good chunk of the meetings.

      I worked at a small, completely open office and a couple of the directors volunteered that they could work in the common area occasionally if a private space was needed for meetings, so maybe that would also be a possibility.

    3. Mona Lisa*

      My non-profit office used to do this. We used the local library for longer meetings since we only had one conference room.

  5. OhGee*

    I feel your pain. If your open plan office nonprofit is anything like mine, you may face an uphill battle getting anything about the space changed.

  6. Sit in Syrup*

    I have found white noise or ambient music to be very helpful (bonus when paired with noise-cancelling headphones). Loud music is just another distraction for me, but white noise drowns out office noises without getting songs stuck in your head.

    1. McWhadden*

      I got those as a present and I love them!

      But before I had a pair of TaoTronics Active Noise Cancelling Bluetooth Headphones. They aren’t the same quality as the Sonys by any measure. But they do alright especially if you also play some white noise or music. And they usually run about $35. So, a reasonably priced alternative that isn’t too bad.

      1. Gingerblue*

        Ooooh, I may get a pair of those as cheap backups to keep in my bag. It’s impressive how much the noise-cancelling tech has improved in the last few years.

  7. hayling*

    I like my Bose Quiet Comfort over-the-ear headphones. They’re super comfortable. I have the QC25s, but they have newer ones and I think bluetooth now.

  8. periwinkle*

    Along with the individual solutions, perhaps you could propose alterations to the physical space which would help with the noise? Offices tend to have lots of smooth hard surfaces which help noise bounce around. It could help to soften those surfaces with egg carton foam panels or even just heavy fabric curtains. Go medieval and hang tapestries! You’ll at least take the edge off the noise, which might make it more tolerable.

    1. Horton hears*

      +1 Get some cloth or simple soundproofing for the space. It may take it from “About to rip my hair out” to “Meh”

  9. L*

    I work in an open office environment as well. I actually used to have an office but we moved to a new building and my company decided to be real “edgy” with the layout for collaboration and blah blah blah, which means I spend my day struggling to focus on a job that requires a whole lot of it. Headphones help somewhat, but what ends up happening is that everyone is wearing headphones so no one can actually collaborate. We’re all constantly waving in each others faces and taking our headphones on and off. It’s honestly the dumbest professional experience I’ve ever had.

    1. Teapot Tester*

      My office has an open plan and this is the biggest complaint. In order to focus people wear headphones, which defeats the purpose of a “collaborative” environment. We all message each other anyway.

      Personally, the open plan doesn’t bother me so much, I can tune out noise around me, and I like to be able to hear my coworkers in case anything they’re talking about affects me.

    2. Anti Open Floor*

      There was a recent study that scientifically showed people talk LESS in open floor plans for the exact reason you mention (not wanting to bother other people). They put sensors on people to measure among other things how close they were to another worker (representing face to face convos) and also measured email volume before and after a move to an open floor plan.

      The article is called “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration”.

      Anyone nowadays that seriously says they’re doing open floor plans to “increase communication” is lying and is only trying to squeeze more butts in the same sq ft.

      1. Ellen N.*

        There’s another reason company owners switch to open floor plans. I used to work in entertainment business management. One of the companies I worked for switched from offices to cubicles, despite that fact that we were on the phone all the time. The reason they gave is that they wanted to make sure that employees were always working, not shopping, watching videos, on Facebook, etc. The crazy thing is the the employees who used to goof off still goofed off. The employees who wanted to get work done were constantly distracted as we could distinctly hear everyone’s phone calls.

  10. WellRed*

    I wonder if they can hang a few acoustic panels above the half walls, especially in the conference room. I am really surprised this company doesn’t realize holding meetings practically in the office space is not conducive to work.

    1. Mary*

      Yeah, I was going to say this. I’m not sure what you mean by half-walls, but you can get noise-deadening screens and they might be an improvement if the organisation has the budget for them.

  11. KR*

    Every office I’ve worked in is essentially one big room with several desks in it. It is Hell and I long for at least a cubicle, at most an office. So sorry OP. Winter is slow season for a lot of contractors. Maybe your office manager could find a deal on interior renovations to get a conference room wall put in.

  12. sandwiches*

    I have extreme ADHD and although our office layout isn’t as bad, it’s open concept and extremely difficult to focus. I can hear conversations going on across the room and around the corner. I’ve tried listening to music but I have to listen to it so loud that I need to mute notifications for slack and e-mail, causing me to miss a lot of them. I’m struggling to find any resources for accommodations I can request from my employer.

    1. Enni*

      Ugh, some people truly can work in these offices, but when you can’t, you really can’t. I wear noise filtering headphones 7 hours of the workday (invested in some Vain STHLMs so I can walk to the copier and back without cords) and use the white noise app recommended upthread when not blasting music. It took me six months of talking to HR to get them to at least move me to a desk with some kind of barrier.

    2. Trinity Beeper*

      Not diagnosed, but I have a similar issue. Our office has a big central room with desks in it. What helped me somewhat was to move my desk position. I used to be right next to someone, but now I’m on the edge and a little farther away from everyone. Is there any chance you can have your desk moved to the farthest position from everyone else?

      Also – see if you can get visual notification banners while turning off the sound!

    3. Holly*

      hey sandwiches, while it might be better to go to your employer with a suggestion in mind, it would be perfectly fine to talk to your current employer and let them know you’re trying to come up with something workable – but see if they have any ideas too. this might also be important considering you’re missing notifications.

      1. sandwiches*

        I’ve worked here for 4 years and they know that it’s a serious issue for me. The office layout changed about a year ago. I’ve mentioned it several times over the past few months but the only response I get is “it’s an office, it’s going to be loud”.

        1. Holly*

          have you specifically mentioned that you’re specifically asking due to your adhd? there needs to be some sort of interactive process/discussion of how they might be able to accomodate you if it’s a medical issue per the ADA. this isn’t legal advice, just something you should explore. if nothing works, it might mean you aren’t suited to that kind of work environment and need to move onto somewhere different.

          1. sandwiches*

            yes, they’re aware it’s due to my ADHD. I’m trying to find accommodations and solutions that work for me since only working at jobs with cubicles or more closed off areas isn’t very realistic. I’ve tried a few things (music, white noise, alternate hours) but nothing has been of huge help so far.

    4. Koala dreams*

      An occupational therapist could help you find accomodations for you work. You would need a couple of sessions to describe your workplace and discuss solutions. Sometimes they also have recommendations for community resources.

      Could you change the notifications from sound to flashing lights or vibration alerts? Then the music wouldn’t interfer with the notifications.

      I hope this comments doesn’t show up twice, I tried posting it before but it seems to be lost.

  13. Anonymous Ampersand*

    There have been days when I’ve had white noise playing through my earphones and music playing through headphones on top of them. Not ideal but it got me through. My sympathies.

    1. xms967*

      Literally same. I have rain.simplynoise plus whatever music on the days when Constant Non-Stop Noise is going to drive me batty.

  14. DKMA*

    Given that physical walls are hard to change, could you propose re-purposing space in the kitchen? It sounds like that is the one space in the office that is quiet. Could you propose putting up a divider and adding a work space in there that individuals could “sign out” when they wanted to crank away without distractions.

    YMMV based on how often the kitchen is used as a kitchen / breakroom, but in small offices I’ve been in people basically never use the kitchen, or only use it for coffee and the coffee pot could be set up elsewhere.

  15. Bea*

    Can you even call it a “conference room” if it’s not a room at all…it sounds like a weird divider system you’d use for a studio apartment in a pinch but around a table instead of a bed. Yikes!

    I’m so sorry you have to deal with this crappy setup. I can’t imagine there’s much to be done given the setup.

  16. LinesInTheSand*

    OP, if you’re blasting music to cover the noise, get your ears checked ASAP. Please do not incur hearing loss on top of everything else. It is disturbingly easy to do with earbuds.

  17. Lucille2*

    I worked with a client who had a space I believe was similar to this set up. They were a start up on limited budget working inside an open concept office. They did not have a proper conference room for taking calls, but some kind of open space or something with half walls as you mentioned. I never saw the space since all our interaction was done over phone and webex. We would regularly have 90 minute working sessions over conference calls, and I had the most difficult time hearing them. There was so much background noise because of their office set up. They knew it wasn’t ideal and apologized for the noise, but it really made working with an otherwise great client difficult. I bring this up because it may be causing issues with any vendors/3rd parties your company works with. Open office plans really are productivity killers.

    1. EPLawyer*

      If LW could prove this, its something to bring to management. It’s hard for our vendors to work with us and may be costing us money works a lot better than “I can’t think with all this noise going on.”

      I sympathize. Open office is my idea of hell. It rarely produces what bosses think it will. It is not nearly as “edgy” as anyone thinks it is. But damn it does save those nickel and dimes on office space. Sadly, I don’t think the situation is going to change, other than getting a new job when you are able.

  18. Dust Bunny*

    I would be job-hunting, like, last week.

    I loathe headphones. I’ve never liked having things on my head and the idea that I could only do my job by wearing headphones ALL THE TIME is just unbearable.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      It’s difficult though as SO MANY companies are buying into the sham of “open office” that no employees want.
      Even if you take a job, you may find that a year in, they move or remodel to the hellpit format.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        Yes, this is my sadness. If I wanted to prioritize a civilized layout in my next job search, it would eliminate maybe 80% of jobs. And how do you screen for it? They never mention it in job postings. And then a year later, they move to the layout of evil anyway.

    2. Batty Twerp*

      I’m not allowed to wear headphones in my open plan office. I need to be interuptable at all times. (No idea why – my job isn’t that high up, and I’m not a manager or team lead). I can wear headphones ONLY if I’m doing office mandated online training (and even then, boss interrupts whenever she can’t get excel to open or whatever!).
      OP, you have my deepest sympathies – collaborate with your colleagues and push back on this. Your situation is more unworkable than mine, don’t let it make you as unhappy too.

    3. Jady*

      Haha, I wish.

      I work in software development. I’ve worked in two jobs that did not originally have an open office space, and both of them switched to one. My other two jobs were also open office space.

      I would switch jobs in a heartbeat if I could FIND a job that offered an alternative. And my god if a job offered me my own office I’d take a massive pay cut to switch to there.

      They just don’t exist anymore.

      The claims about collaboration and efficiency and whatever else they sell about the open office space is all nonsense. I can’t count the number of studies I’ve seen that talk about all the negatives, from actually lowering collaboration to health problems increasing from stress.

      It’s about money. It’s less money to spend on office furniture/walls/etc. It’s more people crammed into the same amount of space – requiring less space and less rent.

      I think the only alternative that will actually stick is telecommuting. Right now there’s too much bias against it, but I expect we’ll see a big shift to that over the next decade.

  19. nnn*

    Is shifting your work schedule an option, so you can have some time in the office before everyone else arrives or after everyone else leaves to work quietly?

    Also, it couldn’t hurt to try to demonstrate a difference in productivity when a chance to work quietly does arise. Whenever the office is quiet, or if you’re there early or late, or if you get a chance to work from home (even under exceptional circumstances like a snowstorm), make a huge effort to ramp up your productivity and get a remarkable amount of work done. Then bring it up in conversation whenever possible – “Yeah, I stayed late to finish the teapot report, and it turns out I got it done in just an hour! It’s amazing how much easier it is to get this sort of work done when it’s quiet!”

  20. Quackeen*

    I can’t work in a setting like that. The noise is one thing, but the real killer for me would be the possibility of someone listening to any call I make, business or professional. I get way too self-conscious when others can here my phone calls and get severe performance anxiety. My job would be quite impossible in that kind of office.

  21. peachie*

    Other than the white noise/headphones suggested, I have no advice, only sympathy.

    In the off chance anyone here is part of a planning committee for renovating/moving to a new office, I highly recommend a “central white noise” system. At my last job, we moved offices from a traditional, lots-of-walls, even-the-cubicles-are-fairly-blocked-off situation to a more open setup. Not a full open office (thank god), but shorter/more open cubicles in a central area rather than in little suites. We were all nervous about the noise, especially since many of us were on the phone a lot, but they took a lot of care in designing the new office. (It was a totally new space–we were the first occupants, so we got to decide almost everything about the design.) Between the ceiling panels that were designed to reduce noise and the “central white noise” thing, it was actually quieter than the previous office!

    (I just tried looking up what exactly this system is called–I’m not positive, as I wasn’t on the planning committee, but I think it was something like the company I linked in my name. Another worry was that the noise would be audible and distracting, but you couldn’t hear it at all. It looks like “sound masking system” is the more commonly-used term?)

    1. Czhorat*

      Yes, you’re talking about a “sound masking” system. Cambridge is a big name in the field; Atlas is another. Plantronics also has a rather unique solution that utilizes more natural sounds.

      As I said before (after totally missing your post) sound masking raises the noise floor, reducing signal-to-noise ratio for background conversations.

      It can be retrofit into an existing space without too much effort; I’ve often seen sound-masking speakers placed above a drop ceiling, so they might not even need to cut ceiling tiles.

  22. Czhorat*

    Can you talk your employer into investing in sound masking? That doesn’t make it quieter, but adding background noise raises the “noise floor” to make others’ speech unintelligible. This creates a modicum of privacy and is less distracting.

    There’s even one (Habitat Soundscaping, from Plantronics) that uses more natural sounds rather than typical white or pink noise.

  23. AMT*

    Earlier in my career, I underestimated the mental health effects of having sub-optimal office space. This meant that I accepted (a) a job with a highly noisy open office, which meant that I had no privacy for phone calls/meetings/etc. and that anyone could read things off my screen (and did, and commented on them!), and (b) a job at a place where my workstation was in the hallway of a busy psych ward (!) until I moved into a tiny, dingy two-person office with almost no space to move around, and with an officemate who smoked.

    Needless to say, this took a toll on my mental health. I dreaded going to work every day. I called out sick a couple of times because the physical environment was so taxing to be in. OP, if you’re at all in a position to change jobs, I strongly urge you to see what’s out there. I’m loving my new job, and a big part of it is that I’ve got a clean, cozy private office with a snack drawer, desktop fridge, houseplant, bookshelf, and all of the nice office supplies I picked out when I started. I spend eight hours a day here and I’d be torturing myself if I forced myself to do that in an environment I hated.

  24. Jolie*

    I used to work (also for a small nonprofit) in a big open plan office, right above an amenity room that was used for anything from Salsa dancing for old ladies to therapeutic screaming (organisation doubled as a Community centre).No walls (weird balcony-like setup)

    One time they were rehearsing a play about Keir Hardie, the founder of the British Labour Party. At some point in the play, all the characters started chanting : “Workers of the world unite! Workers of the world unite!”

    I used to joke with my boss that one day I’ll just shout at them over the balcony : “Oy, this worker of the world is trying to actually work in here!”

  25. Dwight*

    I’m definitely going to be repeating a few peoples’ suggestions here, but I have an off-brand Bose-style wireless Bluetooth over-ear headphones that have noise cancelling in addition to noise blocking.
    For some reason, the old guy next me insists on using an FM radio that never seems to be tuned right. It’s an open office space with many people and I hate the distractions.
    Back to the headphones; they connect to my computer by Bluetooth, and I can even do phone calls with them, because our phone system can be run through our computer. I find I’m completely oblivious to the loudness around me, which is great. The only thing that sucks is people startle me when they actually need to talk to me, and I need to make sure they stay charged.

  26. voluptuousfire*

    I used to work in a much noiser floor than where I work now. I had professional earplugs I bought on Amazon for concerts on my desk and ended up putting those in and then put the gamer headphones I have at work for remote meetings. It calmed the background noise considerably. The earplugs were only $10 on amazon–my DIY noise cancelling headphones. :)

  27. Jules the First*

    How long have you been in this space? I’ve worked in radical open plan offices (everything from meeting rooms with no walls to offices with hundreds of people at long desks with no dividers) for years and I swear you will get used to it. The trick is to learn to focus your attention away from what’s going on around you – notice yourself listening to what’s going on around you and deliberately refocus on your breath and the work on your screen. Trying to “drown out” the ambient noise will never work – your goal is to diminish all of it into an undistinguished roar. Noise cancelling headphones and/or white noise can help while you learn to do this. After ten years, I can literally sit in the middle of a conversation and have no idea what they’re talking about.

    One note – removing the dividers between your desks may actually help – people are a lot better at using their inside voices and being respectful about noise when they can clearly see other people working.

    1. MissDisplacef*

      Nope! Some of us will never just “get used to it.” No distractions and need to focus are crucial for some work.

  28. Len F*

    I get this too, at work, from time to time. I use earphones that go in my ear canals, like plugs. They work better for me for blocking outside noise than those bud types that sit over the end of the ear canal (besides, I could never get those to stay put).

  29. Kate H*

    I completely sympathize and am about to take notes on those suggestions for noise-cancelling headphones. My department is seven people all in one room, all who talk to each other throughout the day. We’re right next to customer service, with no divider between us and their hallway. All day they’re either on the phones or half-shouting to each other. The next room over is the rec room, with not enough installation in the walls, and–on the other side–the break room with no wall whatsoever. I listen to podcasts all day and find it a great help, except I often have to pause because someone in the room is talking.

  30. Lentils*

    Oof, I have so much sympathy, OP. My old job’s office had the most ludicrous floor plan where there were several conference rooms around the perimeter of the room that had glass walls and doors, but the break room, which contained a POOL TABLE and TV/Xbox, did not have a door?? And my desk was right next to it. Also there were like 3-4 dozen people sat at long tables in an open area, and I worked in transcription so my job literally involved needing to listen carefully without interference. I definitely got resentful of chatty people around me since there would sometimes be long chunks of time where I couldn’t focus or even hear the audio because of how loud my neighbors were being. (To say nothing of the time people decided to play Rock Band for an hour around 3:30 on a Friday afternoon…like…I understand YOU may be done with your work but I am not!

    Anyway. Best of luck finding somewhere better. <3

  31. Tea*

    Probably echoing lots of other comments but as someone acutely sensitive to environmental factors (sound, light, temperature, ergonomics, and even people’s proximity to me), here are my tips to keep from losing your mind:
    – noise cancelling is different from noise isolating. I went for noise isolating: meaning, full, over ear headphones. I don’t feel the cost associated with noise cancelling head phones is worth it since human conversation is too variable and thus can’t really be balanced out by active noise control. Another plus to having actual head phones instead of buds: combining them with earplugs!
    – I cannot listen to music really while I work – definitely not anything with vocals, and nothing too up tempo. I do OK with ambient music. So what I do is I pipe in different tabs of environmental sounds. I have one browser tab open to where it just plays rain sounds, and then I just play a bunch of YouTube videos that hours long ambiance clips to creat my own “collage”. There is TONS out there. 10 hour long videos of a crackling fireplace! Custom created sound collages of sitting in a castle library while it snows outside. You name it.
    – If at all possible to negotiate it, one work from home day a week will change your life. Especially if you do it on a Wednesday or Thursday. I usually start feeling myself experiencing homicidal urges around middle of the week due to a busy office environment, so I’ll alternate Wednesday or Thursday work from home. Unless your job requires a ton of face time, more and more bosses are very amenable to that, as long as you make yourself accessible
    – Be honest with people when you need to focus. Sometimes phone calls and meetings need to happen. But people also engage in a lot of small tak and social chatter that (in my grumpy opinion) has no place in the work areas and should be moved further away to a common area like a kitchen. A lot of people come off as inconsiderate not because they are rude by default, but because they don’t think other people might be different to them. Many people love hanging out for 10 minutes or so at their desks shooting the s**t. I am not such a person, and I make it a point to (with good humor about it) remind people of that. It works.

    Anyway, my sympathies, I wish we could rewrite the past decade or two when open floor plan became THE THING, when in fact it’s actually a ruination of productivity unless you work in a deeply collaborative, everyone constantly needing to bounce ideas workplace AND your job actually is the type of collaborative job. These plans don’t factor in a percentage of workers who keep things running for all offices everywhere – be it management, procedures, HR, operations, analytics – who need quiet, head down, focused environments.

    1. MonMon*

      What kind of thing would you say and in what tone, to get less chatter?
      I’ve never managed to get people to be respectful in my office, which might be cultural (a lot of people are just loud and act as if work was an evening bar outing, and no one bats an eye) or because I have such a hard time holding back my anger when I finally boil over… Either way, this might be useful for the next place.

      My own experiences below:

      I also went with noise isolation after reading that cancelation wasn’t good with voices, which is my main issue (that and an incredibly annoying co-worker who does all the mouth and throat noises you could think of). While it’s not enough on its own (can still hear low and high frequencies, kinda like being in water?), I found that adding music or background ambiance (Noisly and!) covers the remaining frequencies enough that I don’t understand the conversations anymore, which is what my brain would latch on uncontrollably. And because outside noise has been diminished so much, I don’t need the extra sound to be loud, which means much less headaches compared to when I used earbuds.

      I’ve also taken advantage of our new work-from-home policy to, just as suggested, get out of that environment on Wednesdays. Gives a much needed break and makes the last two days palatable.

      During this summer lull, I was also able to nest into various unused meeting rooms (we have quite a few and rather well noise-isolated). Not the most comfortable when it comes to the furniture, but such a change otherwise! That said, this option is slowly disappearing as people come back from vacation, and I’ve always felt self-conscious for using rooms for my sole benefit.

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