Work Life

The Most Annoying Thing in the World

Photo of Holger Reisinger
October 14, 2014
Reading time
4 minutes
Concentrating at work is not for the faint-hearted – especially not if you work in an open office space environment.  Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it’s our colleagues that are driving us nuts. Fortunately, there are ways to make sure you get the peace and quiet you need to perform. And don’t worry, it doesn’t include building offices for each and every employee.


I was introduced to quite a drama the other day. Best gossip ever from an old friend from my university days. The core of his story was a ménage-à-trois love affair gone entirely wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to go into all the details, but a few headlines will give you the basic idea: guy falls in love with his old buddy’s girlfriend. They talked about it as mature adults and came to an agreement; he should keep his distance and not ask her out. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep his promise and from there, the whole thing exploded into arguments, slammed doors, old friendships broken, etc. Oh, and by the way, in the end, none of them got the girl.
How do I know this? Well, my old friend works in an open office space, and here, one of the ill-fated Romeos spent the past few weeks trying to solve the matter via his telephone – giving everyone else in the office front row seats to the whole drama. This got us talking about how there is no privacy in an open office for either work or more personal matters, which is the very reason why most employees hate open office spaces and noisy co-workers who, by far, are the largest nuisance when you try to get some work done. Our brains simply can’t cope with noise when we really have to concentrate. Just think about yourself in a car, trying to find your way to some unknown destination. What is the first thing you do? You turn down the car radio and ask the kids in the back seat to keep quiet for a while.

Noise kills productivity and – if you are unfortunate – yourself too

A couple of years ago my company helped analytics specialists YouGov design a survey about distractions and noise in the workplace, as noise is a productivity killer in open office spaces. Here, 36 percent of the respondents revealed that they are disturbed by people talking loudly across the office space, 29 percent have difficulties concentrating because of noise in the office, and 27 percent are disturbed by co-workers’ questions or remarks. Finally – and to me most surprisingly – 12 percent are often disturbed by co-workers eating crunchy vegetables. I guess they prefer the stick rather than the carrot!

The distractions and the noise are bad for your productivity and hence, also your company´s bottom line. According to a TED Talk by Julian Treasure, Chairman of The Sound Agency, and author of Sound Business, we only have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations. This means that if you’re forced to listen in to some of you colleagues´ conversations, you’re only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write. In his speech, Julian also claims that office workers are up to 66 percent less productive in an open office plan than when left on their own.
The impact on our bodies is even scarier. Studies show that when the noise level goes up, your heart rate goes up. A study from schools in Germany showed an average noise level of 65dB. At that level, teachers have a heart rate close to the one doctors see before a heart attack.

Kill the noise before it kills you

What should we do about it? Well, fortunately, there are numerous solutions – and it doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune.

The expensive solution is, of course, modifications to the buildings. You can either install sound suppressing elements in the offices or – better yet – build quiet rooms for people to use when they have to concentrate. Quiet rooms are better than individual offices for everyone, because it leaves space for people to be together when they work together, and to withdraw to another area, when they must concentrate.
You could also gather everyone and decide on some common ground rules for talking and making noise in the office. Another solution is letting people work from home when they really have to concentrate. Here, they can find peace and quiet. But this, of course, requires that they have no other tasks that demand their presence in the office that day.

The luxury solution

Finally, there are headsets. Modern headsets have many helpful features. First of all, wireless headsets make it possible for people to leave their desks to go somewhere else when taking phone calls.  Other types of headsets enclose the entire ear, leaving out all sounds. That’s great if you like listening to music when you work. Finally, state-of-the art headsets have noise-cancelling technology that removes the noise so it never reaches your ear.

I actually gave my old pal a pair of these noise-cancelling headsets as a birthday present about a year ago. Given the above story, I bet you are now thinking, as I did, “Why didn’t you use them when you were disturbed by your colleague´s many phone conversations with his broken-hearted friends?”

When asked, he smiled and said: “The truth is, I voluntarily chose to listen in. I simply had to. These conversations have been the major subject of all rendezvous around the water coolers for the past few weeks, and I wanted to be part of the discussions. To be honest, it was great entertainment, too…”

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