Shhh! I’m Trying to Work: Thoughts on Managing Noise in the Workplace

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As I sit down to write this, gardeners are using leaf blowers across the street, and there is a fairly constant presence of drivers gunning their engines as though my street is a racetrack. Even though I work mostly from my home office and have some control over my space, the constant soundtrack is frustrating because I have realized I am sensitive to noise—especially when I am writing. I can handle a little bit of music if I am in control of the music, but most other noise makes me tense, and I lose focus.

I am the kind of person who avoids certain restaurants because the music is too loud. I cannot walk into a Best Buy without feeling assaulted by loud music and blaring TVs. These types of environments are the norm, and in some ways I think that we have accepted noise as a given in our lives. What does this mean for the workplace? Do we need to just accept it as a part of modern life, or are there ways to create a quiet workplace?

My Experience with Noisy Workplaces

We live in a noisy world. We are bombarded by loud music, the rush of traffic, the whir of blenders in a favorite coffee spot or whatever provides the noise that populates our world. Quiet is elusive, and the way to find it is to either carve out our own space or to escape to a distant retreat for a few days. When excessive noise infiltrates our workplace, it can affect our ability to concentrate, and it adds additional stress to our jobs.

I often have not realized how much noise affects me until I am out of a noisy situation. I used to work in HR at a manufacturing and distribution company. For my last couple years there, I was HR manager at the distribution center, so my office was located in a noisy warehouse. A typical workday included the constant sound of beeping forklifts, tape guns and the blare of the PA system. By the end of a workweek, I would often choose to spend the whole weekend by myself at home so that I could avoid noisy environments.

Working for myself has meant that much of what I do takes place in my home office. While I still contend with noisy cars and leaf blowers outside, I have a lot more control over my immediate space. It has made a big difference in my ability to focus and get things done.

Controlling the Noise

Working in a traditional office could be a challenge for me. There always seemed to be the distraction of conversations, the copy machine or all the other background noise present in such an environment. I have friends who wear earplugs at work to shut out some of the office noise, and I like to use headphones with classical music. The headphones and music give me some control over the sound, which has worked well for me.

Many offices are set up with cubicles, and open office plans have received attention lately. For those of us sensitive to noise, these options are not ideal work situations. While open plans may help some collaborate more, they can be frustrating for those who are most productive when they are in control of the noise.

Technology has opened up many possibilities for changing how we work, and I do not think employers have fully embraced the ways they can use it to improve the workplace when it comes to noise. It is not always possible to give everyone their own office, but employers can allow for more work-from-home options. While in-person collaboration is sometimes necessary, there are many tasks that can be performed from home. Giving employees a day or two per week to work from home may be a good balance between collaboration and quiet, alone time to get work done.

Some Final Thoughts on Quiet

I do not think it is enough to accept that we live in a noisy world. While we can make small adjustments to our workspace, minimizing exposure to noise is challenging. Does noise get in the way of working for you? How do you deal with a noisy work environment? Share your thoughts in the comments.