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Here’s what to do if your work space is driving you to distraction

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Do you function better amid the chatter of colleagues, or dream about working in total silence? Stylist investigates office volume wars...

Words: Kerry Parnell


Colleague One turns the radio on. Colleague Two turns the radio off. Colleague One turns it back on again. Colleague Three complains, loudly, about Colleague One’s taste in music and a spirited debate ensues.

Every desk-bound worker has been there. Noise is the number one complaint we have about our lives in the office, and that’s not counting those working in traditionally loud environments like shops or building sites. Some 49% of the workforce in the UK is in an open space according to a report from office furniture company Steelcase. That’s more than double the average across the world and we’re not coping well.

Trying to write a detailed report while a colleague is having a heated debate on the phone an elbow’s distance away is clearly nobody’s idea of fun. Worse than that, it negatively affects our ability to do our job. It’s believed that people working in an open-plan environment are 66% less effective than those in a private office because our brains simply aren’t designed to focus on writing, thinking and listening at the same time. A Cornell University study found that the kind of noises we experience in an office – the sudden sound of a cough, the ring of a phone – increase epinephrine levels which trigger the body’s fight or flight response and distract us from ongoing tasks.

But while a silent office is some people’s idea of nirvana, to others it’s a hell where you’re tortured by the sound of your neighbour’s nose-breathing. Thanks to silent air conditioning, efficient double glazing and inaudible computer keyboards, quiet shared offices are more common – and a more frequent problem – than ever before. When workers in a finance department at the BBC complained that the ongoing silence in their office was oppressive and causing them to feel stressed and lonely, a £2,300 white noise ‘chit-chat’ machine was installed to provide comforting background noise. So where does your workplace fall on the decibel (dB) spectrum? Use the chart below to assess the noise levels so you can work out how you can to save your sanity.

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It’s believed that people working in an open-plan environment are 66% less effective than those in a private office.

10dB - Morgue

A silent workplace is the optimum environment for concentrating on complex tasks as it allows your mind to be more creative, says psychologist Dr Jonathan Smallwood. “The capacity to disengage from the outside world when the external environment is sufficiently benign is important to almost every human endeavour.” However too-quiet offices can cause anxiety from what’s been labelled ‘pin drop syndrome’, when colleagues have no interaction.


30dB - Church

While still silent, this is a slightly more comfortable noise level akin to a quiet rural area, perfect for introverts who prefer less external stimuli, but extroverts would struggle. “The auditory environment plays an important part in how people’s minds function,” says architect Steve Maslin, who is writing a book on mind-friendly environments. “But people differ in their responses and so what works for some or even the majority can be disastrous for others.”


40dB - Library

For those needing to concentrate, this is the optimum level of noise, where people are talking quietly, but no one voice is distinguishable, so you’re not forced to listen to endless discussions about the Great British Bake Off. “In open spaces, about as close to optimum as we can achieve is a masking level of background ‘buzz’ over which no one voice or noise stands out,” says Neil Usher, Sky’s workplace director, who recently moved his company into a cutting-edge building which includes quiet zones.


50dB – Restaurant

It’s hard to escape from the sound of people talking, but when conversations interrupt your chain of thought, it can have a significant impact on concentration and even mental health. “Noise annoyance is the negative feeling noise can create as well as a feeling of having one’s privacy invaded,” explains psychologist Professor Stephen Stansfeld. “People are more productive in quiet environments. Noise, particularly speech, interferes with concentration and memory.”


60dB - Shop

A typical office has phones ringing, keyboards clicking and people chatting, which some find stimulating, others overwhelming, especially if it’s constant. “Noise can have a long-term damaging effect,” says Zoe Humphries, workplace consultant at Steelcase. “It contributes to sleep disorders and impaired cognition. If a busy road produces around 85 decibels, open-plan offices can produce up to 65 decibels, making intellectual work harder than it should be.”


70dB - Nightclub

While your co-workers might think having the radio or TV on creates a vibrant workspace, if you get to 70 decibels, it affects production. And once noise hits 80 decibels, your employer must offer hearing protection. “If you need to shout to be heard, it’s too noisy,” says Paul Vickers from employment law group Elas. As to those who say music helps them be creative – a study found it increased output for extroverts but decreased it for introverts.


If you like noise but you’re in a quiet office

Negotiate

If you put music on but your colleagues keep switching it off, try to come to an agreement that meets everyone’s needs. “People are often more productive in a working environment they have helped to develop,” says psychologist Dr Craig Knight. “If workers can decide whether to play a radio, have silence or something in-between, then that is the best level of noise.”

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Try to come to an agreement that meets everyone’s needs.

Get a fan

Try installing a desk fan – albeit a quiet one so as not to annoy others. Quiet Mark, the eco-award scheme, recommends the Dyson Cool AM06 Air Multiplier desk fan, which is bladeless and relatively low-volume. £249, johnlewis.com.


Invest in clever headphones

The simplest remedy to silence is using headphones to listen to energising music. So you don’t accidentally ignore your boss, get a pair that allow external sound. Libratone Q Adapt headphones have different settings to allow background noise, so you can hear the phone or someone talking to you. £169.99, currys.co.uk.


Conjure up colleagues

If no-one has spoken since a cursory, “How was your weekend?” at 9am, then it’s time to get creative. Fake the feeling of being part of something with the simple but effective Rainy Cafe app (rainycafe.com), which is just that – sounds of rain and people chatting in a cafe. Pity they can’t pipe in the smell of roasted beans too…


Get mobile

Leave a too-quiet office as often as is viably possible. Go for a walk while you’re making work calls; sit in a lively café for lunch; or meet your colleagues away from your desk somewhere. Not only will you enjoy the background noise, but the fresh air will boost serotonin levels, leaving you happier when you do finally get back to your desk.

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Leave a too-quiet office as often as is viably possible.

Download virtual noise

For something – anything – other than the sound of silence, try mynoise.net, which has a huge selection of ambient background noises from voices to a cat purring and a rain menu (rain on a tent, tin-roof rain…), which you can mix to your desired combination and volume.


Open an office window

Letting in ambient sounds from the outside world – like leaves rustling and birds chirping – will help alleviate the feelings of isolation for sufferers of ‘pin drop syndrome’. Don’t try this in areas of heavy traffic or roadwork, however, or you’ll lift the decibels and blood pressure of your colleagues too high.


Install a fish tank

The filter will provide white noise and the fish a bit of life for those who find their workplace deadly. Try a nano fish tank (an extra-small set up, suitable for beginners), like the Tetra Cascade Globe Bowl.

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The filter will provide white noise and the fish a bit of life for those who find their workplace deadly.

If you prefer silence but no one else does

Block out the noise

The easiest way to cut out background clamour once and for all is with noise-cancelling headphones. If you can’t put a price on your peace, try Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones. £329.95, bose.co.uk


Set up a screen

Persuade an amenable (and well-off) employer to buy a super-stylish sound-absorbent screen which gives you privacy and comes in a range of colour options. The Woven Image Echopanel Platoon Screen, made from recycled plastic bottles, is designed to organise open-plan living areas or workspaces. £1,547, wovenimage.com.


Get a plant

“Plants absorb, diffract and reflect sound,” says Kenneth Freeman, head of innovation at interior landscapers Ambius. “Rough bark and thick leaves are particularly effective.” The more you have, the quieter it will be and they work best in spaces with hard floors and surfaces.

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The more you have, the quieter it will be and they work best in spaces with hard floors and surfaces.

Ask for a quiet space

If there’s nowhere to go to concentrate on a task, ask your manager if an area can be designated a quiet space. “Choice and control has become the new status symbol for today’s workers,” says Humphries.


Use earplugs

For something budget-friendly, good old ear plugs are still one of the most effective ways of cutting noise – and are perhaps a bit more discreet than a pair of headphones. Try silicone earplugs. £3.99 for a set of three, superdrug.com.


Be as quiet as a mouse

If your mouse clicking stops your mind ticking then try Logitech’s Silent Mice – a gadget that has 90% noise reduction and the same click feel without the actual click, as well as a smooth scroll wheel to complete the quiet experience. It is approved by award programme Quiet Mark. £24.99, quietmark.com.


Listen to the wind

If you prefer ambient sounds to help you concentrate, try A Soft Murmur app (asoftmurmur.com), which has a range of background noises such as waves, wind, thunder and fire, as well as white noise. You can mix them together and adjust the volume.


Secretly meditate

When all around you is chaos, sort your head out with the extremely popular Mindfulness app (mindfulness-app.com). It has breathing exercises, guided meditations and even “sitting in silence” lessons, which you can do while pretending to be industrious – your employer will benefit in the long run.

Images: Getty / iStock

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