How to Reduce Office Noise + Improve Focus


Think of a time when you tried to sit down and read. Just as you were getting into your rhythm, some outside noise caught your ear, and you suddenly found yourself rereading the same sentence over and over without taking in a word.

Even if you’re one of those rare people who can read in a noisy environment, you’ve undoubtedly had this happen to you. There’s no shame in it. The human mind simply focuses better when it’s comfortable and distraction-free.

Now think about your work environment. Is it conducive to that type of comfortable, focused mindset, or is it buzzing with distractions?

No matter how you answered that question, you can bet that not all your colleagues would answer it in the same way. Each person has their own preferences on what makes for a comfortable, focused atmosphere, and every little factor at your office — from the aesthetics to the noise level — affects that atmosphere.

Quiet Is Key

The overwhelming majority of people agree that starting with a quieter atmosphere is the best way to create a productive work environment. They find that the less noisy the office is, the more they can focus on each task set before them.

Aside from helping workers to focus, creating a quieter work environment has other benefits:

  • It makes the environment more inviting to potential employees — for example, those interviewing to work at the company
  • It prevents gradual hearing impairment and even stress
  • It promotes productivity and decreases underlying hostility between coworkers

Even if you think of your office as a fairly quiet place to be, that doesn’t mean that it meets the needs of the average worker — especially the average millennial. According to an Oxford Economics study, the majority of workers wish they worked in a quieter space.

As you walk through your office, take note of the different noise levels in different parts of your building. In one area, it may seem blissfully silent, but in others you may suddenly notice the grating sound of one machine’s incessant humming.

To really get an idea of whether your office falls within the safe decibel range — under 85 dB — and the comfortable decibel range — 48-52 dB — bring in the experts. Do some acoustic noise testing to ensure you meet industry standards and so that, instead of assuming your office is quiet enough, you’ll actually know.

No matter how your office tests for acoustic noise, it’s always worth investing in your team’s comfort and ability to focus. Here are three simple techniques to help your team become more aware and respectful of one another’s work environment and in turn more productive all-around.

  1. Try Roommate Matching

Remember when you first got to college, and you had to fill out some roommate-matching paperwork before being assigned to your dorm? The paperwork asked questions about your study habits and whether you were more of a night owl or an early bird.

More than likely, you were one of the millions of freshmen who found themselves stuck with a roommate who in no way resembled the type of person they requested to live with. There’s no deep science behind it — close quarters can lead to stress and disagreement, especially when the circumstances are 24/7.

In the office, the circumstances are a little different. Whether colleagues share one office together or have cubicles near one another, they’re not stuck together day and night. Still, their surroundings matter.

Some people like working with music on. Others hate it. Some people like working alone. Others like to have someone around to bounce ideas off of.

So why not lay out the office in such a way that people with similar preferences work near one another? Putting aside your own roommate-matching horror story — everybody has at least one — consider the benefits that the practice could have on your own office.

The workers who prefer the quiet can share offices or office space, depending on how your building is laid out, while workers who prefer white noise can share work areas, and so on. And in the quieter sectors, you can encourage employees to use their sound-absorbing technologies and methods.

There can, of course, still be designated public work areas for quiet and for noise. Each worker feeling comfortable in his or her own established workspace can do wonders for your team’s mindset and attitude.

  1. Designate Quiet and Noisy Areas

Whether or not roommate matching works for your company, employees need a place or two where they can go when they’re tired of the same old surroundings. Maybe they want to walk away from their office simply to gain a new perspective and get the creative juices flowing. Maybe they need to go surround themselves with different sounds — or no sound at all. Or maybe they need to seek out different colleagues to collaborate with.

Whatever it is they need, they should be able to easily find it in work areas designated for quiet time and for social time.

For example, declare the break room a safe place to talk, eat, bounce ideas off one another and play music. Then designate a separate room — one that’s not too close to that chatty break room — for peace and quiet. It should be designed using noise-reducing layouts and techniques.

By taking this very simple step, you are saying to your workers that their comfort is worth your investment. And whether or not they realize it consciously, knowing that two distinct types of workspaces are available at any given moment takes pressure and stress off their day.

There’s an amazing — and inspiring — freedom that comes with that kind of comfort.

  1. Talk to the Team About Sound Policies

Most employees have pure intentions. They want their colleagues to feel comfortable and productive. But not everyone realizes when they’re getting on a coworker’s nerves or interrupting someone.

How can you avoid these work faux pas? Simple: talk to your employees about workplace noise. Share the science of audible distractions and the impact they can have on the office. If you’ve established quiet and noisy work areas, make them known. And, above all, encourage employees to speak up if they’re not happy with their work environment.

In addition to talking about sound policies, maybe you and your team can create a signal that lets other workers know when not to interrupt. For example, say an employee — how about Brenda, that quiet lady from the marketing department — is really getting into her work groove in the open of the Quiet Room.

Then, Joe comes over with a relevant but could-have-waited work question. To be polite, Brenda closes her laptop and answers Joe’s question. Once he walks away, she opens it back up and realizes she’s lost her train of thought.

This scenario, though perfectly innocent on Joe’s part, happens constantly in workspaces. One colleague simply seeks a conversation with another without realizing that they’re distracting their colleague mid-thought.

To avoid this counterproductive moment, maybe Brenda could have hung a sign on the back of her computer screen that reads “Not now. I’m in the zone!” Or perhaps she could’ve had ear buds in place or been wearing noise-canceling headphones.

Choose your team’s signals and make them known and appreciated company wide.

Focus on the End Goal

As you re-examine the noise policies at your own office, keep this in mind: noise-appropriate environments make workers feel more comfortable. Workers who feel more comfortable are ultimately happier. Happy workers are less stressed, more pleasant to work with and much more productive.


About the Author

Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks, a career and happiness blog. As a freelance writer, Sarah enjoys writing about a variety of topics from career and business to healthy living. Catch her on Twitter @SarahLandrum for more great advice.


Photo Credits: Pixabay

One comment

  1. Nice post, it wasn’t until I accompanied a family member through the process of having a hearing aid fitted that I thought about background noise. A hearing aid amplifies EVERYTHING so those two women whispering… You are being over heard…

    People feel the need to fill the silence with noise. It’s a standard police questioning tactic to regularly leave long pauses in an interview. The suspect will feel compelled into filling them and thus incriminating themselves further

    I also realised that there are very few places where you can go for complete silence. Even the bank now has their own radio station or music playing…

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