5 Ways to Shut Up Noisy Office Mates

Last Updated Jan 11, 2011 12:19 PM EST

With a constant stream of e-mails, telephone calls and office drop-bys, we already have enough distractions to deal with during the day. So noisy neighbors are more than a nuisance. They can be destructive to your own ability and those around you to get things done.

There are two types of noise pollution to consider. One is the single individual who just can't keep quiet. You know these people, probably too well. They have an opinion on everything and a captive audience, you, to share their wisdom with. Dealing with these folks is fairly straight forward. First, you can ask them in a nice way to pipe down. If that doesn't work, it's time to talk to your supervisor about the issue, and how it's hurting your ability to do work. These two measures are usually effective in muzzling the offender, or having them moved them to another locale.

The harder problem is working in an office that is generally noisy. Cube walls are low. Office doors are kept open. The atmosphere is convivial, and the culture is built around face-to-face interaction. Your only recourse is defensive: block it out.

Here are three tips culled from an HBR blog post, Noise at the Office: How to Cope, by Patrick Skerrett:

  • Put on a headset. Music, talk radio babble and stations that play ambient noise such as waves breaking can offer good background distraction to the chaos across the room. If this doesn't work, do what my wife did when she was a reporter in a cacophonous newsroom: wear the same ear muffs used by shooting range masters -- they cost anywhere from $50 to several hundred.
  • Turn on the white-noise. I have a white-noise machine for sleep, but they would be nifty in the office as well. They're a little on the loud side, so you'll want to test before buying. Place one next to your desk or at the open door to your office.
  • Keep it down. Skerrett advises that you monitor your own noise level that may be bothering others. If your office mates see you trying to be noise respectful, they may act in kind.
Who was the loudest or most annoying work mate you ever had, and how did you deal with it?

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  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.