As open-plan offices become more popular, many of us are used to working in a crowded, noisy space. Open spaces can be beneficial for collaborating with others, but for focused work, they can often hinder productivity.
As Milanote’s CEO Ollie Campbell says, open-plan offices encourage collaboration at the expense of other types of work. They make team members feel that disruption is acceptable, says Campbell, and that serendipity among colleagues is worth the interruptions open-plan offices create:
In most workplaces, focused work is left to chance. If nobody’s called you for a meeting that day, you might get an afternoon to yourself.
In a noisy, crowded environment, focused work doesn’t have a place, says Campbell:
If you need to focus, ‘work’ is pretty much the worst place you could be.
So if the office is a place full of noise and distractions, how can we get any meaningful work done?
Try these three tips to find some focus and cut down on the noise in your workday.
1. Use ear plugs (or headphones if you must)
Many of us turn to headphones and loud music to drown out the noise of a crowded workspace. But experts say this is a dangerous solution. The louder the noise around you, the louder your music needs to be to drown it out, and the louder the music, the more damaging it is to your hearing.
And if you use white noise rather than music, it can be deceptively loud, as it’s not as obvious as music. Which means you might end up harming your hearing even more if you’re using white noise to drown out office chatter.
Noise-cancelling headphones can work well to drown out noise, but they’re not a great fit for an office environment, unfortunately. These headphones work by listening to the sound waves around you and emitting sound waves that cancel out the original sound, rather than masking it by playing a louder noise over the top. But this technology works best for constant, low frequency noise, like the roar of an airplane.
Since all of these options come with downsides, hearing experts recommend ear plugs to block out noise without damaging your hearing. Rather than blasting your ears with louder noise to cover up the chatter of your colleagues, ear plugs create a barrier to prevent the sound (or at least, some of it) from getting to your ears at all.
2. Take a silence break every day
While silence was used by researchers for many years as simply a control condition in studies of sound, more recently it’s been discovered that silence is an interesting state in itself.
Studies have found that silence tends to be more relaxing for the brain than any type of music. When comparing different styles of music in one study, the silent pauses in-between the music were actually most relaxing for the brains of study participants.
Researchers believe this is because our brains are never truly quiet: they’re always performing some kind of processing, and when we’re listening to something or concentrating on a particular task, we’re diverting the brain’s attention away from its default processing state. When we’re surrounded by silence, however, we give the brain a chance to revert to its all-important processing without interruption, and our brains seem to relish this opportunity.
A study of mice has also found that periods of silence can encourage new brain cells to grow and becoming functioning neurons. We’re not sure yet if this effect applies to humans, but it’s possible that a little dose of silence every day could make you a little smarter.
Whether you’re lucky enough to have a quiet nap room in your office or you need to hide out in your car during your lunch break, try to find a little pocket of silence every day to give your brain a break from processing all the noise and distraction of your workspace.
3. Institute regular office quiet time
If you, like Milanote CEO Ollie Campbell, believe work can sometimes be the worst place to be when you need to focus, you may want to try instituting regular “quiet time” hours in your office. For Campbell’s agency, Navy, creating a quiet time rule has increased productivity and focus, and made work the best place to be to get things done:
We’ve been doing this for four years, and the benefits have been huge. We compared months of data on our team’s velocity, and it showed we’re 23% more productive. Because of this, we don’t work on Friday afternoons any more. We’re less stressed. And we think our work is better, too.
Quiet time rules at Navy involve putting phones away, not scheduling any meetings, and not interrupting colleagues or talking with others in the office. It’s a protected time when everyone in the office knows they’ll be able to focus on their work without noisy distractions. Navy divides Monday through Thursday in half, with the entire first half spent in silence.
Anyone in the team whose job requires noise—phone calls and meetings, for instance—keeps this noise off-site or behind closed doors to maintain silence in the main office space.
To make the quiet time habit stick, the Navy team integrated it into their morning standup meeting:
As well as discussing what we plan to work on, we added two simple questions:
“Do you need to talk to anyone before quiet time starts?”
“Is anything preventing us from doing quiet time?”
We’ve found making it opt-out rather than opt-in stops exceptions from becoming the rule.
Noisy office environments are common these days, but they’re not conducive to getting meaningful work done. Rather than simply accepting that the modern workplace is noisy, we can focus on finding a balance between collaboration and quiet periods to give our brains a chance to focus.
What strategies do you use to overcome noise in the workplace? Let us know in the comments.