Have you ever had to reread a passage over and over because someone near you was speaking too loudly for you to concentrate? Or perhaps you’ve tried (and failed) to write a paper in the presence of a chatty friend. If you’ve been in situations like this, you know that noise can greatly affect performance.
In a 2020 article, Julian Treasure, international speaker on sound and communication skills, said the most distracting sound is the human voice, but music is also disruptive to work and productivity. This is especially evident in the workplace: If your office is open and filled with loud workers, you probably don’t get as much work done as you could if it were quieter.
“Noise and interruptions definitely affect productivity and increase employees’ stress, increasing blood pressure and heart rate,” said Dr. Jude Miller Burke, workplace psychologist and author of The Adversity Advantage: Turn Your Childhood Hardship into Career and Life Success. “It is the rare individual who can day after day, hour after hour, focus well with a constant hum of background noise.”
It’s easier to focus when you can hear your own thoughts over the cacophony of an entire company. But sometimes, you don’t have a choice – you’re trapped in a rowdy space and expected to get your work done regardless.
If you find yourself in a noisy workplace, there may be a few things you can do about it. These eight tips could help you get your productivity back, no matter what the decibel level is.
Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, noted that earplugs are one of the best options for workers who are easily distracted. They drown out background noise and help the brain concentrate.
You can also play music through your headphones, Taylor said. Depending on how sensitive you are to noise, mellow tunes can actually help the mind stay on task. Create a playlist that suits you and listen to it when the office is particularly loud. You might even find yourself feeling more inspired or happier while listening to music.
“Though it sounds strange to add more noise to a loud office, having a small white noise machine app on your phone can help mask any rhythmic sounds with steady, ambient noise,” said Stephen Light, CMO and co-owner of Nolah Sleep.
Often, open workspaces are to blame for overhearing frequent conversations and sometimes even personal phone calls. While the layout might encourage collaboration, it can also hinder productivity, said Taylor. If you can’t focus enough to get your work done, see if you can locate a quiet space that is not in use to complete particularly intensive projects.
“Find a conference room or empty office that you know isn’t off limits [to use] as a safe haven when you absolutely need quiet time,” Taylor said.
Additionally, certain times of the day might be louder than others. Plan your assignments according to the volume of the office.
“Keep all your strategic and deep-thinking projects to hours of the day when it’s most quiet,” Taylor said. “For example, handle more transactional activities when the noise level is higher.”
If there is a particular time of day when the volume is at its peak, schedule more thorough tasks in the separate room. Even if you have to share the space with another worker or two, it will be less noisy than the entire office.
Emails may be sent in a distracting atmosphere, but more involved jobs, such as writing, reading a thick technical paper, or producing a video, need our full concentration, according to Jeff Mains, CEO of Champion Leadership Group.
“Often, these tasks require you to keep a lot of information in your head at the same time to complete them,” Mains said. “If you’re stopped in the middle of a project, you’ll have to go back and retrace your actions to get back on track.”
Additionally, focus on one task at a time, and put all of your concentration into that one task.
“Oftentimes, employees multitask to accomplish more things faster,” said Sonya Schwartz, founder of Her Norm. “However, that will only be possible if you can concentrate enough without external noises. Thus, focusing on a single task will help you keep your productivity.”
This may seem counterproductive, but one of the main reasons loud noises impact productivity is because we’re so used to quiet.
“Spend more time around constantly noisy environments,” said Brian Nagele, CEO of Restaurant Clicks. “Most people will avoid the noise to be more productive, but that’s not always practical. Instead, make a conscious effort to situate yourself within the loudness.”
Nagele said this will train your body to adjust to your background. Before long, those auditory distractions might become invisible to you. Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s worth a try to lessen the impact a noisy office has on you.
A loud office is distraction enough, but you might also be doing things to exacerbate how much that noise distracts you.
“Try some self-management techniques,” said Chris Anderson, founder of lifestyle platform Soothe Your Feet. “Put your phone away or put it on silent mode for a start. Close any unnecessary browsers and apps, leaving only the one open that you are working on. Make sure you have designated breaks, and stick as closely to these times as possible.”
Eliminating workplace distractions within your control can mitigate the impact a loud office has on you.
According to the Mopria Alliance survey, 55% of office workers get distracted by watching videos and playing games on their computer or cell phone.
Sometimes what makes working in a loud office difficult is that it’s hard to drown out the noise of conversations or music with easily distinguishable lyrics. Experiment with adding more noise, but a different kind of noise.
“Try sitting near an open window to the street where the traffic noise is audible, or sit in a common area with so many people talking that individual conversations become inaudible,” said Dean Kaplan, CEO of The Kaplan Group.
This is a similar concept to using white noise. The distraction might not be the noise itself, but a certain type of noise.
If you work best when no one else is in the office, and it’s feasible to work outside of the normal office hours, try getting to the office before anyone else or staying after others have left.
“I once had to head in early to the office before opening hours in order to finish a deadline that was due at 9 a.m.,” said Ally Mashaura, editor-in-chief at Adventures Pursuit. “It was the first time in a very long time that I was able to stay focused on my report, which I can only conclude had to do with the fact there was almost no one in the office.” [Related: The Pros and Cons of a Compressed Work Schedule]
Mashaura also said that most people aren’t really chatty in the morning, so don’t worry if you aren’t the only one getting to the office early.
When all else fails, be upfront. Executives especially should step up, taking aside those who are causing the distractions and being honest with them before it gets out of hand.
“It is up to the leaders in the organization to set the culture for the department, and it is best if the manager can set very clear expectations on unnecessary noise,” Burke said. “Initiate dialogue each week about the noise level, and encourage people to discuss it openly at staff meetings. Set the expectation that if someone is being extra loud with personal phone calls, jokes, or daily gossip, you should ask that person directly to be less noisy.”
If you feel uncomfortable confronting a co-worker, confide in a supervisor, explaining that the noise issue isn’t personal, but you can’t perform to your highest potential because of it. Burke recommends explaining that with clear direction from them, the whole office could be more productive.
“Maybe it would be worthwhile to discuss the noise level and creative solutions in a staff meeting,” she added. “You may be surprised as to the unique solutions that might come up that could be helpful.”
Jennifer Post contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.