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I am currently 5 months pregnant and work in a tech company. We have an open seating area for the engineering department and this is where I sit as well. I have just received my semi annual review a few weeks ago with one of the highest scores in the company. However, recently I have been assigned a very interesting research project that requires a lot of focus.

The problem is that the engineering area is very loud. When I'm not pregnant I'm usually able to tune a lot of the noises out, but right now I find it impossible. For example, one man sitting next to me talks to himself while working (talking through his work and announcing every time he needs to go to the bathroom) and another group of women congregate by my desk a couple of times a day for 30 minutes at a time to vent about their mother in laws.

I am very worried that my performance has started to suffer. Up until now I have managed to get work done by booking a conference room for myself but people have started to complain that I'm hogging the conference room (though I follow proper company procedure when using the conference room). I have also thought of asking to be moved to a different work area or working from home a couple of days a week but I am afraid of asking for special accommodations when I don't want to be treated differently because I'm pregnant.

I have thought of getting noise cancelling headphones but I don't find them to be very comfortable. Perhaps they are my only option.

How do I balance my growing need for peace and quiet while not making a bad impression by asking for special accommodation?

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    I wish there were a broader forum to put this out to, but "Noise-Cancelling headphones" are not the panacea that many present. They cancel out broad-spectrum, repeating noises like machinery, engines, airplane noise, air handlers (forced air) very well. Then, in turn, non-repeating noises like speech and most music ends up to be MORE noticeable. Ear PLUGS may be the better choice, here. Also, it's very inexpensive to get a small pack of disposable ones to experiment with. May 2, 2016 at 18:40
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    Noise cancelling headphones plus music works well for me. With my headphones colleagues can't hear a thing even when I turn them up to a level that is too loud for myself, and with the right music you hear nothing going on around you. On the other hand, everyone is different.
    – gnasher729
    May 2, 2016 at 19:43
  • Maybe this answer will help as it deals with heavy noise cancellation?
    – enderland
    May 2, 2016 at 20:02
  • It's your managers job to make sure you are able to do your job. If you are having an issue with your job. It is safe to bring this to your manager. Everyone is different, your not asking for special treatment.
    – Trevor
    Jan 5 at 14:19
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    A loud environment was the only reason I quit my last job. All colleagues were/are programmers and devs but though it felt like almost no one had to think and/or they simply didn't feel disturbed. I asked the safety guy (legally required in Germany) to measure a loudness and he did (even on a rather calm day) and it was > 90 db though law demands to have <60 db in offices where you have to think. And then I quit :)
    – Ben
    Jan 5 at 15:35

10 Answers 10

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I'm autistic and things like that always drive me crazy. Get a pair of noise canceling headphones, or ear plugs, and anything else that can lower stimulus.

A few women I know had extreme increases in sensitivity to stimulus when they were expecting (which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, you're going to want to know if there is a predator in the area, if food is spoiled, et cetera).

Try the headphones or earplugs and visit some autism sites for ideas on how to combat sensitivity to stimuli.

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    Visiting autism sites is a fantastic suggestion. Wish I'd thought of that when I was preggo.
    – JK39
    May 3, 2016 at 6:45
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There seem to be two major issues you need to deal with:

Guy Who Talks To Himself

Try talking to him about it. Maybe he doesn't realize that he's doing it, or knows, but doesn't realize it's bothering you. Be polite, but firm:

Hey Bob, sorry to bother you, however are you aware that you narrate your workday out loud? Could I please ask you to try and do so internally?

(you may want to work on the wording - this is simply off the top of my head)

There's no need to really step on egg shells as most people will react reasonably if you're polite and friendly about it.

Gossiping Gal Pals

Whether these women are trying to include you into their conversation or not you can still approach them in much the same manner:

Excuse me, guys, I don't mean to interrupt, but could I ask you to take your conversation over to the lunch room? Thanks! (you don't need to specify a reason - it should be obvious that you're trying to get work done, unlike them)

If for some reason they do feel offended point out that you're working to meet a deadline for the manager X, and should take up the issue with him if they wish to.

Other

If you're still finding that you can't focus then you may wish to speak with your manager and simple be honest:

Hey boss, these new projects are a lot more taxing on my attention and focus than some of my regular work, and I'm finding it difficult to stay on task in the open-plan area. Could we work out some kind of arrangement, because I feel like I need a little bit of peace and quiet while researching these issues.

Your boss will probably engage with you and work on finding a solution.

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  • I think the OP wanted to find a way that didn't call attention to her pregnancy or seem like special treatment. And if she says these things without specifying it's due to pregnancy, people will be walking on eggshells around her after she comes back from maternity leave.
    – JK39
    May 3, 2016 at 6:48
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    @JK39 - where in my answer do I mention pregnancy? However if she does not wish to work in the common area (I mention asking to be placed elsewhere as a last resort) then what she's doing is indeed asking for special treatment.
    – AndreiROM
    May 3, 2016 at 13:36
  • You didn't. But, her colleagues know she's pregnant (I assume). So if she follows your advice without attributing her annoyance to pregnancy-related sensitivity, people might just think she's "like that", which could have long-term consequences for their treatment of her in future. But if she offers that as an explanation, it will seem like special treatment, which she said in her post she wanted to avoid.
    – JK39
    May 3, 2016 at 16:35
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    @JK39 - so just because she's pregnant she can't ask people to take their conversation somewhere else, or to stop talking to themselves? If a person walks up to me and asks me to be a little more respectful of her having to get work done my reaction would be "I was being loud and bothering people, I should be more considerate" not "Oh, she's only saying that because she's pregnant" There's nothing wrong with my advice - it's what I'd tell anyone in that situation. You're the one attaching the "special requests because of pregnancy" label to a perfectly normal and simple request.
    – AndreiROM
    May 3, 2016 at 16:42
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    @JK39 - that's the thing, I don't see what constitutes special treatment in asking people to take their conversation somewhere else, etc.
    – AndreiROM
    May 4, 2016 at 13:18
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Talk to your boss about accommodation for your temporary disability.

You didn't specify your location, but most first world/developed countries have laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled employees and mandating that employers make reasonable accommodations to allow them to perform their work. These disabilities can be temporary or permanent, and if your pregnancy is impairing your ability to do your work by increasing your sensitivity to noise, that would definitely count as a temporary disability. As such, I would recommend talking to your manager about accommodations such as being relocated to the conference room for the duration of your pregnancy, or being supplied with noise-cancelling headphones by the company.

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  • The child is about 5 years old now… Jan 12 at 11:28
  • @morbo Yes, but other people might find this question on google.
    – nick012000
    Jan 12 at 12:12
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Tell people your hearing is sensitive right now, and that you can't concentrate.

Normally adults take these things in their stride and go somewhere else to chat. You may get some resistance at first, or people simply forgetting but just keep politely telling them.

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If booking the conference room works for you then keep doing it, just make sure you follow company policy. You would also be wise to explain to your boss why you need to do it and ask him to make people aware of the reason and to stop complaining!

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How do I balance my growing need for peace and quiet while not making a bad impression by asking for special accommodation?

Stepping back to 10,000 feet, this is a failure of management. Engineers usually work best when they have a distraction-free environment, and that usually means private offices. The failure is, management is not providing it.

Maybe you can tactfully suggest management read Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Or cite it in your arguments to obtain a distraction free work area.

(I take no position on the common area where engineers meetup and collaborate when needed. I think that area is useful, too).

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  • Despite this is a good suggestion, it won't work I guess. At least until it maybe happens, OP will be not pregnant anymore. Such "big" changes in the company demand months to be prepared and made. Sep 18, 2019 at 6:53
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Depending on your situation, working from home may give you more control over your environment. It would also make it easier to take breaks, deal with other side effects etc.

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  • Welcome to the community - it can be useful to add different examples to your answers and elaborate a bit more. On this answer, for example, I'd add how you would approach OPs manager about making this request. OP has specifically said they don't want special treatment - maybe also try to address that concern
    – Gamora
    Jan 10 at 12:14
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+100

Pregnancy-brain is usually followed by baby-brain and toddler-brain. That goes for spouses too. It's a distraction-filled time of life.

I would try all of the individually-driven fixes - different types of headphones, shared offices, time-shifted hours, and remote. They will all be useful when you are balancing looking after a young kid.

You should reach out to your manager for support in doing these things. None of them are particularly radical or unreasonable things to ask for, especially if you are flexible in finding what works with the team. On top of that, you are one of their top performers. I would emphasize the inherent challenges of the open office, the new responsibilities, they changed mix of work, and also the pregnancy, as factors. You could mention ways in which you will still be available for casual problem-solving conversations - eg you'll be at your desk in the office x days a week, you'll be on chat, you'll always be at the standup meeting, etc.

By all means you can try talking to peers about making it a less noisy office, but it sounds like a hard battle to win. You are changing an entire work culture for between a dozen people and a hundred people, depending on how large your open working space is. You might moderate it, but don't drive yourself crazy trying to turn a cattle market into a library.

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Yeah I would first and foremost try to discuss this with your manager to see if you can be moved to a more quiet part of the office or maybe you can WFH a few days a week.

Failing that then as you have said noise cancelling headphones. I too thought that they are uncomfortable until I started using them in office and you do get used to them. You'll struggle to wear them for long periods of time e.g. > a few hours at a time. Some advice I have is that you want to spend quite a bit of money on them if you are serious as generally cheap headphones will be uncomfortable. Made a big difference to me.

This doesn't stop interruptions and I suspect the company wants you in that noisy environment exactly so that you can be interrupted constantly. This is why it's important to speak to a manager first to get things straight. Does the company think it's fine that people who need peace to do their work are in a noisy and disruptive environment? If that's the case I suggest you think about moving to somewhere that shows you some respect.

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How do I balance my growing need for peace and quiet while not making a bad impression by asking for special accommodation?

Given that your performance has started to suffer, you should prioritize doing what's necessary to fix that, even if that means asking for the accommodation. They can't legally retaliate against you for asking for one but poor performance is something they can reasonably complain about. And while they might try to punish you for asking for an accommodation anyway, it's still easier for them to hide what they're doing if they can claim it's about objective performance measures.

Remote work, if possible, may solve a host of issues when dealing with an ongoing medical issue.

Depending on your situation, working from home may give you more control over your environment. It would also make it easier to take breaks, change/adjust seating, deal with other side effects, handle medical appointments, etc.

This makes it less likely that you would have ask for additional accommodations later. For example, if your sensory sensitivity got worse before it got better, you might have to ask folks not to wear strong scents and then later ask if the lighting can be adjusted. If you're concerned that asking for something will make you look bad then it might be easier to make the one request that solves several potential issues in advance.

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