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Situation

I started a new job 3 months ago. My team (of 6; I'm not a manager) sits on the leftmost side of the office in a block of cubicles. I'm the rightmost in my block and the only one on my team with the cube's open side exposed to a narrow "hallway" between cube blocks.

The next block over is another team of 6, and their manager, who are all extremely loud. We'll call them Team Noise.

Look, I have been in the workforce for nearly 10 years and have always worked in open office environments and "cube farms". I don't even notice regular office noise like typing sounds, paper sounds, clicking sounds, coffee maker, air conditioner/heating duct noise, construction outside, even conversations near me are fine. I am not especially sensitive to noise. I can easily tune out conversations held at a normal conversational volume.

But this is different. While my own team only makes the regular amount of office noise I just described, I don't even know how to fully describe the volume coming from Team Noise.

So let me just say that...they shout and laugh for 4-5 hours a day at such a volume that I can hear it through my headphones - with my Bluetooth headphone volume turned all the way up and my phone's volume turned all the way up and metal (music) playing. Metal because it's the only thing that even remotely drowns out the noise. (I like other genres too, as well as podcasts and audiobooks. But most types of music aren't loud enough to drown out Team Noise. And Team Noise is so loud that I can't hear podcasts or audiobooks over them.)

I also get headaches after listening to music at this volume and I know it will contribute to hearing loss in the long term.

I only started listening to music at work to drown them out. At my previous jobs, I either didn't listen to music while working or I only put one ear in, to add some background noise in an otherwise normally quiet office.

But in this office, I basically can't work for 4-5 hours a day. Like I said earlier, I can easily tune out conversations held at a normal conversational volume. These conversations are so very loud, especially when combined with raucous laughter, that I can't tune them out - especially when they all start laughing in a sudden burst, it makes me jump every time, and this happens several times a day outside of the 4-5 hours too. I will add that these conversations are NOT work related at all, but even if they were, the volume is still too high - that is the issue here, not the content of the conversations.

For context, none of Team Noise is new to office environments - all 6 guys are easily 40+ in age. (For context, I'm 30.)

Action

I tried noise-cancelling headphones. I thought they wouldn't work because they work on droning noises like fans or air conditioners, not on sudden, piercing noises. I was right. They didn't work. I returned them.

I tried wired headphones, which do not seem to be any louder than my Bluetooth headphones, so no luck there.

I have over-ear closed headphones for monitoring that I brought into work one day, but even those didn't do the trick.

I have spoken about this with my boss, who does seem reasonable so far. He pre-emptively told me to listen to music while working during our first 1x1 because of Team Noise. I was impressed with his forthrightness at naming the problem.

More recently, I told him I can't get the music loud enough to drown them out, and I am getting headaches trying. He seemed alarmed when I told him that. I knew he would be open to hearing possible solutions so I came prepared.

I suggested working from the cafeteria - it's on our floor, but outside our office space - it's a large room with big heavy closing doors. The doors are propped open at lunch time but closed the rest of the time. We are allowed to be in there outside of lunch time - I've seen other people working in there, or sometimes people go in there if they need to make a private phone call (e.g. scheduling doctor appointment), and people go in and out using the water and ice machines, getting coffee, using the vending machines, microwaves, etc. Ironically, the cafeteria is quieter than the office! (Although this is mostly because most of the people on our floor, including Team Noise, eat lunch at their desks so almost no one is in the caf, even at lunch)

My boss's eyes lit up for a second when I suggested working out of the cafeteria, but then he said, "Well...I want people to be able to find you in case they need to talk to you." That's a valid point. In the same conversation, we also discussed working from home. He said he wished the company allowed working from home because it would make it easier to attract and retain talent, but he said, "Unfortunately, we just aren't that kind of company - nor will we ever be." He sighed. His hands seem to be tied by the higher ups. To be fair, I wasn't seeking a WFH position and I don't want to work from home under ordinary conditions, so I didn't ask about it at the interview. I asked so many questions at my interview, guess I forgot to ask "are there any extremely loud people in the office?"

I also suggested booking a small conference room that no one uses, and just working in there all day. My boss had the same issue of people won't be able to find me.

Suggestions?

Based on the above situation and what I already tried, do you have any suggestions for actions I can take to try to remedy this?

I hate to leave after just 3 months, especially because the job is otherwise decent, but I've been looking for another job because of this issue.

Note

Since this website tends to assume people are software engineers, let it be known that I am not! I work in marketing. My team, Team Noise, our managers, and the rest of our immediate office area are all marketing people.

marked as duplicate by gnat, solarflare, Anketam, IDrinkandIKnowThings, gazzz0x2z Jul 31 at 13:13

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Jul 31 at 18:10
  • 'My boss's eyes lit up for a second when I suggested working out of the cafeteria, but then he said, "Well...I want people to be able to find you in case they need to talk to you." That's a valid point.' It would be a valid point if the cafeteria was a secret hidden place. Can't your boss and these people find their way there? – Aaron F Aug 23 at 14:15

12 Answers 12

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Please do not try to drown the noise with loud sound on headphones, that will damage your hearing permanently...

Providing a 'sensible' and comfortable work environment is up to your company, if your manager didn't solve it (I personally consider this a failure on his part, if I'm honest, especially if that is a known problem for his whole team), consider escalating it to HR. Local regulations might apply, a country tag would be useful.

There are apps to measure sound level on the phone app stores, some measurements would be interesting to see...

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    I second this. Trying to drown out chatter with headphones is a very bad idea. What's more intriguing is how your company is OK with 4-6 hours of lost productivity. In an 8-hour workday, your noisy teammates work for 4 hours only? – Little Child Jul 31 at 2:58
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    I've had the same situation, and the managers were powerless to do anything and deplored it. HR was powerless as well, and knew full well the situation was unworkable. Problem there was (this was a government agency) that they'd been moved to a smaller building during cost cutting but had at the same time had their workforce increased. Result? All meeting rooms had had to be turned into offices, all walls between cubicles removed, in order to just house everyone, and all meetings were now held at peoples' desks. Promised relief was years away. After half a year I left with health problems. – jwenting Jul 31 at 4:44
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    +1 for the advice on the headphones, One thing you might want to add is that it's not just hearing loss. it's tinnitus gain. You think loud noises are annoying now? Imagine them being there 24/7 with nothing you can do against it. – Bob Meijer Jul 31 at 11:22
  • @LittleChild, they're in the office about 9 to 9 or so, so I don't know if they work after I leave. – user107420 Jul 31 at 16:31
  • @user107420 Now the question is if they charge overtime :p – Little Child Aug 1 at 6:02
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The marketing people in the area next to you are paid professionals at work. Disrupting the office with raucous laughter and shouting is not professional.

I recommend politely and professionally confronting Team Noise. Better yet, consider asking your manager to confront them. You've already raised this concern with your manager, but in your proposed solutions, you didn't request that he speak with them.

Most people would prefer to avoid conflict as it may have consequences. Indeed, most people don't want to be known as the complainer who can't handle a little bit of noise. But sometimes conflict leads to solutions.

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    I'd add that complaining per se does not create a conflict, the conflict has already been created by Team Noise. By complaining (in a professional way) you are, at most, making the existing conflict visible. In general, I think that the responsibility for the conflict is on the trespasser, not on the complainer. – nanaki Jul 31 at 10:56
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I had the exact same problem you're having once. My patience became very short and I felt like the noise was going to drive me insane. The solution was a pair of ear buds with rubbery tips. These work way better than even construction worker's noise reducing head phones (I know because I tried those first!). And you don't have to have the volume up much. Even with the volume off these will block most noise out.

After using those ear buds for a few days I felt normal again and I didn't even need them most of the time. But they gave me the bit of relief I needed.

The funny thing is that these are the cheapest kind of ear buds you can buy. I found them for like $2 at a major department store.

  • Thanks, can you link to an example? My earbuds have silicone tips, I was curious if these are different somehow. – user107420 Jul 31 at 2:32
  • @user107420 "gumy" ear buds model HAFX5A -- Notice the shape of the tips look like little cups. They plug your ears. Not sure exactly what the tips are made of but it's flexible. I bought some of these at best buy for $2 ish. Walmart has similar prices If you see any for more than that you can get cheaper. – HenryM Aug 1 at 4:03
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The first thing you can do with the Conference room suggestion is to leave a note on your normal table, either physical or on the computer screen (a screensaver) or both telling people where you are. You should also update anyone who might meet you during the day, or is likely to look for you, that you will be working from a conference room.

On a more serious note, you should escalate this issue with your manager, the other teams manager (via your team manager) and possibly HR. Sometimes the other team simply doesn't know how loud and disruptive they are being and asking can help resolve the issue. This however really depends on how well they will take being criticized about talking loudly, so I wouldn't recommend confronting them personally. Ideally, your boss would be able to talk to the other teams manager or go through HR about keeping the noise level down. ( You could also call HR during one of their loud moments, but that might be a dick move).

Another solution is to buy proper sound proofing earmuffs/headphones. Not the ones you use to listen to music. The ones they use in construction sites. Then you can get some earphones and listen to things through the earphones which should help drown out the noise (noise cancelling earphones would help even more).

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    From my experience, there are people who absolutely do know that they are very loud and obnoxious, but who simply don't care whether someone else is disturbed by their noise. – Niko1978 Jul 31 at 7:38
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    @Niko1978 - Some people also just react unconsciously to a noisy environment by raising their voice. I used to do that as a teenager and getting rid of that habit took some practice and, at first, constant concentration - like walking slowly: the moment you stop concentrating, you're back to your normal walking speed. So I think there's a chance that they would be willing to work on it, if they got reminded from time to time. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jul 31 at 10:28
  • +1 for the ear defenders suggestion. It might even be possible to have earbuds underneath them. Added bonus is that people can see the ear defenders and won’t try to talk to you without getting your attention first. – Pam Jul 31 at 10:29
  • Leaving a note at the OP's desk pointing to the nearby cafeteria sounds like a perfect solution. If the boss objects to that, he's not really interested in solving the problem. – DaveG Jul 31 at 13:00
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One of my previous jobs solved this by creating zones in the open floor plan office. For example the northernmost corner is a quiet area, where no noise is allowed, and the southernmost corner is for meetings and loud discussions. The center is for everyday work.

Perhaps you could suggest something similar to your manager? With movable dividers, it shouldn't be too hard to implement.

  • I somehow suspect that Team Noise will easily manage to make themselves heard in every zone, no matter where they actually are. – Niko1978 Jul 31 at 7:36
  • @Niko1978 I'd think so too ... but then at least you'd have something tangible to tell team noise they should lower their overall noise level (if they can be heard from the other side of the building they're is obviously something wrong ...) – Hoki Jul 31 at 12:20
  • Well, we already have areas where they are "allowed" to make noise, like the break room and the hallways (actual hallways not the between-cube "hallways") - they don't move to those areas before making noise, though. Because there is no incentive to move and no consequence for not moving. – user107420 Jul 31 at 16:39
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Although I primarily agree with @matthewninja answer, and think you should definitely focus on that, I would like to complement the path suggested by @Thomas Catnach, @HenryM and @gidds.

If I understood correctly, gidds and HenryM basically suggested the same thing, and that by 'rubbery tips' Henry means silicone tips, which yours already is and isn't enough.

Thomas Catnach sugestion seems nice but would be prohibitively expensive for me. (£249.00)

So here's the thing: you can combine a hearing protection with a muffled over-ear closed headphones for great combo of benefits. I used this effectively a few times before.

  • The hearing protection alone will drown a lot of the noise, although it probably won't be enough.
  • However, when you add the muffling monitoring headphones that you already have, even simply turned off, that would already drown even more noise.
  • The icing on the cake is that now you can just turn on the headphones at pretty much max volume if you wish, and that just HAS TO kill the rest of Team Noise sounds. (Otherwise you might want to invite scientists to study their vocal capabilities)
  • And since you'll have the hearing protection on underneath the headphones, it won't be deafening loud or damaging to your ears as it would otherwise have been, if it was just the over ear muffling headphones on max volume.
  • So -- no headaches either.

For the hearing protection, I'd suggest something like ER•20®XS High-Fidelity Earplugs, which are reasonably cheap, and also made for musicians, which means speech and music won't be distorted, because they provide a somewhat even reduction in all frequency range.

As a bonus, you can use them when going on concerts or such, to protect your hearing. Music will still sound good, and they're very discreet.

Since you already have the over-ear muffling headphones, that would only cost you $25. =]

If your company can't impose some basic work ethic on your colleagues, and must solve this yourself, this would probably work, and be a win-win-win-win.

  • Ear muffs over ear plugs gives a LOT of isolation. I wore this combination at Texas Instruments many years ago. – John R. Strohm Aug 23 at 14:53
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Since you manager appears to be sympathetic to the problem but unwilling to take any actions that might solve it, you need to force his hand.

If working in the cafeteria all day, every day is possible, just do it. He can't then complain that people won't be able to find you - you are always in the same location!

Ideally, get your co-workers to take some joint action. If the management or HR hierarchy attempt to retaliate, they are going to have a hard time justifying taking action against a whole project team or department. If the entire team relocates "full time" to the cafeteria, somebody will soon notice and want to know why.

At the level of the whole team, the most insidious form of protest would simply be to reduce your work output in proportion to the distraction - and that would seem to be about 50% of "normal". If everything is suddenly taking twice as long as predicted, local management will soon to have to explain why - and "firing the entire team" isn't a good way to fix the problem, so there is not much risk of that outcome.

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Use in-ear phones.

They don't have to be expensive; right now I use Enacfire Bluetooth phones, but most brands should do.  (I've also used ACS before, as per another answer; they're great, but probably overkill here.)

But they do need to have a good fit.

When they have a good seal, they block out most external noise.  (Not all, but it should be enough unless your co-workers are really loud.)  A good seal also gives a much better bass response.  (You really don't need massive over-ear phones to get a good amount of bass.)

Experiment with the different sizes and types of rubber insert, with foam inserts, and whatever else you can find.  Screw them gently into your ears until you find a good fit which seals out noise. 

Not only will you be able to listen to your music at a lower level and still hear it all, you'll also be preserving your hearing.  (Which becomes more important as you get older!)

  • My thoughts exactly. Noise-cancelling headphones are much less efficient (especially for voices) than in-ear ones that have a good seal. The only problem is that, at least for me, they become somewhat painful to wear after a few hours. Then again, that’s true of all headphones. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 31 at 11:47
  • To add to this, I've gotten a pair of in-ear headphones with "memory foam" tips. To insert them, you roll them gently with your fingers and insert them relatively quickly so the foam expands to fit your ear canal. These provide the best fit possible. However, they tend to wear out fairly quickly, lasting a couple months at best. Replacements are readily available, but it was too much hassle for me. – Steve-o169 Jul 31 at 16:06
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Get custom IEMs like these. https://www.acscustom.com/uk/products/in-ear-monitors/ciem

You can use them on a low volume and you won't be able to hear anything. They're specifically designed to block out noise around you as they're engineered to work for live musicians. I use them for playing live music and in the office.

They're pricy, but your ears will thank you.

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    I would only consider such an expensive solution if the company is paying for it. – GittingGud Jul 31 at 11:10
  • I've has a few sets of ACS earphones; they're basically earplugs, moulded to your ear canals, that block out practically all external noise — and happen to have great drivers in them too. That said, I think the the hassle and expense is overkill for this. (I'll add a separate answer.) – gidds Jul 31 at 11:31
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Not sure what kind of noise cancelling headphones you have tried, but I would recommend trying the Sony MDR-1000xs they are pricey but when the noise cancelling is on it really cancels out a ton of noise. I used to work in an office that had a loud team nearby that was annoying and made it hard to focus, one of my coworkers bought a pair and let me try them and it immediately convinced me and made a huge difference. I work from home now, so I don't have to worry about that team any more, but my wife is on mat leave so she's home with our son, and when he cries I just put on my headphones and all is good. I've also heard good things about the Bose QC35s, but I haven't tried them

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I've been through this. Comes a time when the situation becomes unbearable. And you can bet that Team Noise knows they are being loud and obnoxious and might even find it funny.

So, if you don't mind making some enemies/offending someone on Team Noise, I suggest you do the same as I did.

As soon as the obnoxious chatting starts, make a loud, really loud "ssssshhhhhhhh", look at them and then say "I'm trying to work". Only that. Don't say anything else, just focus again on your monitor. Do it with a friendly face and voice. I did this a few times and it worked like a charm.

Another benefit is that by making public your disapproval of their behavior, more people who are also bothered by their excessive noise might start replicating your "ssshh" or even complain to their managers.

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I have been using Sennheiser PXC550 at work for the same reason (apart from music appreciation of course). They did work me with wall of sound kind of music such as metal - although I consider it a short-term (and slightly passive-aggressive) workaround that doesn't really solve the underlying problem. This is especially true when you would just prefer to work without any soundtrack.

Given that it seems that both your health and performance suffers because of this issue, if your company is unwilling to accommodate you with either more suitable work space or resolve the issue by f.e. asking the noisy people to move the discussions somewhere else, as much as it is a cliché here in The Workplace, I would suggest continuing to look for another job.

Trialing a company doesn't stop when you sign the contract, it goes on for at least a couple of months after you join.

If there are signs of disregard for detrimental effects on your performance or personal well-being and the organization proves to be ineffective in resolving problems which affect other people as well (like your manager) - it seems like a good enough reason to walk away.

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