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How to deal with noisy colleagues in open plan offices

Sick of noisy colleagues? Here's what to do so. Source: Getty

Open-plan offices were meant to encourage communication and cooperation amongst colleagues, but it turns out we find them pretty inconvenient.

According to Sony’s Sound Report, around 80 per cent of Australians encounter ‘unwanted noise in the workplace’.

And 51 per cent of us name colleagues talking or laughing too loudly as our biggest complaint.

In other words, we have to hear about Jim from account’s big weekend, or Michelle from sales’ kids, and we hate it.

Where did open-plan offices go wrong?

A 2018 Harvard University study found that open-plan offices went against human nature.

Employees who were moved to open-plan offices spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while email and messaging use increased by 67 per cent.

Contrary to what was expected, the study found that “transitions to open office architecture do not necessarily promote open interaction”.

According to the study, humans had a fundamental desire for privacy – and privacy increased productivity.

“When office architecture makes everyone more observable or ‘transparent’, it can dampen [face-to-face] interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate.”

What can we do about it?

Professor and director of Audiology at Macquarie University, Catherine McMahon, told Yahoo Finance that managing noise-pollution in the workplace starts with your workplace culture.

“It may seem completely harmless having a chat to your colleague at their desk, or even asking someone a question from the other end of the office, but this can be really disruptive and can impact someone’s productivity instantly and make it harder for them to recall any important information,” McMahon said.

“Develop the habit of booking in meetings and catch ups with colleagues in a separate breakout space or send them an email with any updates and questions you might have.”

McMahon said regular breaks can help too.

“Noise and stress are cumulative and everyone needs a break from noise. Be sure to take regular lunch breaks, or go for a walk during the day, which can be a great strategy for looking after your physical and mental health.”

Can noise-cancelling headphones help me focus?

More than four million Aussies think noise-cancelling headphones will increase their productivity when they’re at work, and McMahon said these can be “extremely helpful” to concentrate.

Noise-cancelling headphones cancel out actual soundwaves, and work best with low-frequency noise. They’re not that great at high-frequency noises like voices, but they still do the job.

When it comes to chatting with my coworkers, I don’t have much self-control.

Rather than attempt to go against my own will, I tried a pair of Sony’s new WF-1000XM3 noise-cancelling headphones for a week to see if I could drown the noise out instead.

The noise-cancelling feature worked well to block out conversations around me, and it made me focus on the tasks at hand.

The result? I was more productive, less cranky, and less lethargic.

Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit is on the 26th of September 2019 at the Shangri-La, Sydney. Check out the full line-up of speakers and agenda for this groundbreaking event here.

Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit will take place on the 26th September 2019 at the Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney. Source: Supplied