How to find quiet in an open plan office

After months of working at home many people are starting to return to work. But are you ready for the return of office noise? I’ve come up with some great ways to help you create your own little island of calm even in the noisest of offices.

Buzz, bang, beep, cackle, holler, door screeching slowly closed. These are just some of the noises that we can look forward to as we return to our cubicles and open plan offices post lockdown. After several years of suffering in my own open-plan-noise-hell I’ve discovered there are plenty of things you can do to create quiet in even the most gossip-ridden, Tuesday-fire-alarm-testing, two-hour-speaker-phone-meeting office environment.

Several years ago, I started working in my first open plan office. I wasn’t a big fan, but we had big windows looking out on to trees and green fields and large desks where we could create our own space. Then the company decided to fit more and more people into the same tiny area. Suddenly we went from two people on a desk to three, then four. I went from having several feet between me and my colleague to practically sitting on each other’s laps. It didn’t help that the intern who sat next to me had no concept of personal space, or indeed a volume button.

As the noise went up, my stress levels went up and my productivity went down. Open plan offices done properly can improve collaboration, personal connections and create opportunities for people from different departments to mix and perhaps come up with the next big idea. However, they can still be loud and distracting and the background noise can reduce cognitive ability* leading to reduced productivity.

In my case they can also induce a slight murderous rage when the man-spreading senior manager next to me used to take hour long calls at his desk and clearly had no concept of how phones worked or he wouldn’t have been shouting down the receiver.

But don’t worry there are plenty of ways to reduce the amount of noise in these notorious sound generating environments?

What can you do to reduce noise levels in open plan offices?

A lot of the noise in your office is probably out of your control, but here are a few things that can help create some quiet space for you:

  • Wear standard or noise cancelling earphones. This way you can listen to the sounds you want to – just make sure they’re not turned up too loud, so you don’t contribute to the problem.
  • Lead by example
    • turn off unnecessary (all in my opinion) notifications on digital devices
    • Have conversations away from other people’s desks
    • Don’t talk over desks – it’s tempting if you have desk dividers to pop your head over and have a quick catch up with a colleague, but you won’t be the only people hearing the conversation.
  • Explore your office – find the quiet spaces that others haven’t discovered. I found so many ‘secret’ cubbyholes where I could find space and quiet when I needed it. Tip: the canteen outside of peak times can be an unlikely haven.
  • Don’t let things get really bad. Talk to your manager. A simple desk move might solve the problem. Don’t let things build up and bubble over. Address them before they have a negative impact on your health and mental wellbeing. Your manager might not even realise there is a problem. Go to them with some solutions and see how you can solve the problem together.
  • A personal one – at Christmas don’t bring in a musical clock that every hour places a tinny, high-pitched ‘version’ of Jingle Bells. You know who are, Lou!

Office managers these ones are for you:

  • Create quiet spaces where people can focus on their work away from distractions.
  • Conversely you could create a noisy area – somewhere for huddles, lunch breaks, team training sessions to take place – just make sure it’s not next to the quiet space.
  • Assign quiet times – perhaps post lunch when everyone is in a bit of a lull anyway.
  • Introduce a visual key system so people can show if they are willing to be interrupted. We placed coloured cards on the top of our screens – green for yes, I’m free and happy to speak and red for I’m focussing on a task and do not want to be interrupted. Or there’s the earbud code – one in for happy to be spoken to, two in for leave me alone.
  • Encourage staff to work from home. Yes, I know we’re only just heading back to our offices but one or two days a week at home can make a massive difference to the quality of life and productivity of an employee who prefers it quiet.
  • No speakerphone conversations in the office – hearing one voice is bad enough!
  • And leading on from this – no video calls at desks – encourage everyone to treat video calls as a meeting and go to a designated meeting space.
  • Move noise generating equipment away from desks and quiet areas. It might be a noisy machine, or it could be people congregating and chatting at the printer.
  • Finally, listen to colleagues who say they are struggling with noise. Work together to see how things can change. They might not be the only ones who are having a bad time. Simple changes can make a world of difference to their health and mental wellbeing and your business productivity.

There are also myriad ways of reducing the sound by changing the layout, adding acoustic panels, plant living walls etc. These maybe suitable for your business or not but a quick google brings up loads of options in varying price ranges.

I’d love to know how other people cope with open plan offices – from both a personal and business perspective. Keeping everyone happy is not easy but as we spend so much of our time at work, we need to learn compassion and respect for our colleagues. I don’t want to silence the loud voices, but equally they shouldn’t be the only voices heard.

*Banbury, S. and Berry, D. C. (1998) ‘Disruption of office-related tasks by speech and office noise’, British Journal of Psychology, 89(3), p. 499. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1998.tb02699.x.

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