Coping with noise in the workplace

I find it really hard to concentrate on tasks that require logical thinking when there is a lot of other things going on in the same room, especially if those other things are causing a lot of noise.

Some people can focus no matter what, but I'm pretty sensitive to unwanted background noise. Unfortunately everybody does not want their workplace to be quiet -- some people actually want noise and chaos. Completely absurd to me, but that's the way it is.

Sources of noise in the office

Many offices today are really bad with regard to background noise. What is worse is that there isn't a whole lot you can do about much of that noise (provided you don't want it) unless you have the luxury of having a room of your own. Kind of like the old days when smoking was allowed in offices -- there was no getting away from it for the non-smokers.

Common sources of office noise include:

  • Phones ringing, and ringing, and ringing. By the way -- whoever invented ringtone melodies for mobile phones, I'd like to have a word with you in private.
  • People yelling to each other from one end of the office to the other instead of moving closer so they can talk.
  • People talking on the phone in a voice loud enough to almost make the phone unnecessary. The same people also have a tendency to walk around the office while shouting into their phone, making sure everybody knows how important they think they are.
  • People running back and forth, stomping on the floor with their hard-heeled shoes. Depending on how your office building is constructed you may also feel the floor vibrate from their steps. I do.
  • TV:s blaring out news, commercials, sports, whatever. Why is it that people cannot turn down the volume when they have finished watching something?
  • Commercial radio playing the latest Britney-pop crap.
  • Children. Don't ever bring your children to your office during working hours unless you really have no other option.

Some people find that stimulating and energising. For me it makes focusing on tasks that require logical thinking very difficult. Logical thinking happens to be what I spend most of my work day doing. Believe me, I have tried to mentally shut out the noise, but I have not been very successful.

Noise cancelling headphones to the rescue

I find that it's easier to concentrate if I put my headphones on and turn up the volume. It does get hot and uncomfortable after a while, but listening to good music through a good pair of headphones does help me focus. I'd much rather be able to work without wearing headphones since the headphones do make communicating with my co-workers (some of whom are also wearing headphones) much harder. But currently, headphones on it is.

I currently have a pair of Sennheiser HD-280 Pro headphones, which are very comfortable and made for high-noise environments. They work pretty well, but I've actually started looking for headphones with active noise cancelling, and I was hoping to get some recommendations from people reading this.

I want headphones that shut out the outside world completely. I don't mind if they are large and look silly, as long as they are comfortable and give me silence. Something like the HD 280:s I currently use but with active as well as passive noise reduction would be great. I don't want earbuds since I find having something in my ear canal all day too uncomfortable.

The Bose QuietComfort® 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones look interesting, but have been getting very mixed reviews. Some say they are fantastic, others call them overpriced junk.

So which are the best noise cancelling headphones available?

What is your noise situation like?

How do you handle unwanted noise in your workplace? Are you one of those lucky persons who can keep their concentration no matter what is going on around them, or do you need your office to be reasonably quiet? Do the other people in your office respect your need for quiet or do they just find you annoying?

Posted on February 21, 2006 in Ergonomics