Don’t let office noise distract you

The workplace doctor advises how mindfulness and focus can help to beat the distractions that deter us from office tasks.

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I work in a busy and cramped office and sometimes feel hemmed in by all the desks and colleagues around me. Privacy is an issue as someone is invariably standing, and being able to concentrate is another. People have loud conversations on the phone or with each other and it disturbs my work routine. There has been talk of a move to a bigger office for some time, but nothing has happened yet. How can I learn to cope with feeling hemmed in? MN, Sharjah

Nowadays it seems that we suffer increasingly from information overload, balancing multiple demands with the need to switch between varieties of tasks. Our ability to concentrate and focus can end up being a competitive advantage, with many business writers rejecting the concept of multitasking in favour of the performance benefits from sustained periods of focus and engagement.

Maintaining high levels of focus in open-plan offices is difficult, as distractions can seem constant. Most of the sound we hear around us, even though accidental, has a massive effect on our mood, stress levels and productivity. Feeling enclosed by too many desks, people standing around and colleagues having loud conversations can disturb and disengage many of us, yet others remain at ease and even thrive in this kind of environment.

There are clearly individual differences in sensitivity to distraction. One individual may find it extremely difficult to focus while a colleague is on the phone trying to land a new client, yet for another this may motivate and spark new ideas.

Personality always plays its part. Some of us are re-energised by the sounds, movements and behaviour of others. You could say they are “solar- powered” – charged up through the energy of external stimulation. Whereas for yourself, this stimulation is actually quite draining, leaving you needing a quiet place to plug yourself in and “recharge your batteries”. I completely sympathise with you, as I write this response from a quiet room that I often work in, away from our busy open-plan office space.

Learning to cope with this situation starts with you accepting the conditions that you work in most effectively, as well as adapting to your office environment where possible. I would suggest you discuss your personal challenges with your boss, rather than waiting around for an office move that may be a long time coming. Equally, if you have some trusted co-workers, you may be able to share how this situation is affecting you. It only takes a small group to start a powerful movement that can quickly change the current office etiquette.

This verbal etiquette is contagious and has been described as the “Lombard effect” – a phenomenon in which speakers alter their vocal production in noisy environments, such as loud parties or restaurants. In other words, diners speak loudly in loud restaurants and then the people at neighbouring tables turn up the volume of their own speech to be heard. This suggests that quiet people can affect the broader environment by not giving those around them an incentive to be loud. So in a small way, you can be the change you want to bring about, especially if you bring others on board.

You may also be surprised to find that others share your concerns and then maybe a few friendly steps could be taken to create a culture of “acoustic courtesy”. Perhaps extended conversations and telephone calls could be taken outside the office, or chit-chat could be relocated to a communal meeting area?

If you do not feel comfortable bringing up the topic, there are still some steps you can take to block out the distractions for yourself. There are a number of in-ear headphones on the market with noise cancellation built in, and some people find a particular type of background music really helps. Equally, there are “chatter blockers” available that you could download on to your computer to reduce distractions from nearby conversations.

One approach that could really help you focus and avoid distractions is practising mindfulness. This is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you are mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them, you are aware of what is happening around you yet remain able to focus on the here and now, avoiding distractions. Research studies suggest that mindfulness can also help us to improve our memory and attention skills.

In such a noisy environment, this may feel like an impossible task, but rest assured it just requires some practise. Start by paying close attention to your breathing, especially when you are feeling distracted or hemmed in. Then notice, and I mean really notice, what you are sensing in that given moment – the sights, sounds, and smells. Recognise that these noises and the subsequent thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you. Then purposefully zone in to your task at hand and zone out on anything else. Control the attention you pay to your environment, do not let it control you.

Doctor’s prescription

A busy and chatty office works for some, but for many it is uncomfortable and distracting. In reality it is unlikely that a busy office will turn into a peaceful library overnight, but restructuring office etiquette could be a start. Modifying your reaction to distractions with mindfulness will not only help you cope with feeling hemmed in, but will also strengthen your ability to focus.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues

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