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I work in an open plan office and we have some meeting rooms people can use. However, often when people leave these rooms they will keep talking outside of the meeting rooms for 10-15 minutes, disturbing me and other colleagues. I see everyone doing it, from my teammates to management to parttime callcenter employees. I do not have the option to move my work space.

What is a polite way to ask people to 'go talk somewhere else'?

I feel like it's rude to disturb their conversation, but they are already disturbing me...

11 Answers 11

86

What is a polite way to ask people to 'go talk somewhere else'?

"Please, can you take this conversation to a conference room?" will usually get the job done.

The best solution in truth is to use noise canceling headphones. I like it quiet when I work, and will avoid appearing like the bad guy as best I can.

If they are talking at a volume above what your headphones can block out then ask "Please, can you take this conversation to a conference room?" and be sure when you ask the question, they can see you are wearing headphones, this way they know you are already taking steps to keep your work environment as quiet as you can.

Most folks do not intentionally wish to disturb others productivity at work.

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    While this works, I feel it doesn't address the underlying problem - which means it will continue to happen. (Didn't vote up or down on the answer; just offering a contrary opinion based on experience.) – Ghotir Apr 24 '17 at 13:56
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    @Ghotir I doubt that if these offenders are politely asked to take their conversation somewhere less disruptive a couple of times that the behavior will continue. – Mister Positive Apr 24 '17 at 13:58
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    @MisterPositive that was me. Just fat fingered the button, sorry. I reversed it and upvoted. – Richard U Apr 24 '17 at 15:58
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    Depending on the country/work/office culture headphones are a bad idea as they can make other people perceive you as isolating yourself. Also i personally find it very uncomfortable to wear them for prolonged times and would consider work environments where it is expected to wear them as inhumane. – PlasmaHH Apr 24 '17 at 19:29
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    Any suggestion involving headphones is just plain wrong. Not only do many of us dislike things stuck to our head, but it's analogous to telling a bullying victim to wear football pads. – Carl Witthoft Apr 26 '17 at 12:43
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Be direct, but blame only yourself

Try wording it like this:

Hi, I'm having a hard time concentrating. Would you mind talking somewhere else?

I actually do this several times a day. We have QA folks, management, junior programmers, and none of them realize the value of a distraction-free work environment for deep thinking tasks such as refactoring or systems architecture. But they respect that my tasks are different from their tasks, and a simple statement that I cannot concentrate with the conversation nearby usually works.

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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen: We're in an office building, about eight or so devs per room. The floorplan was established long before my company leased space here. – dotancohen Apr 25 '17 at 6:29
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    Well, developers need peace and quiet. For some reason that was not taken in consideration when deciding where to lease space. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Apr 25 '17 at 6:47
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen: The world is not a perfect place! In defense of my employer, our workstations are excellent, well kept, clean, and well-lit. – dotancohen Apr 25 '17 at 6:49
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    There are pros and cons to an open office for devs, I mean even facebook has relatively packed cubicle offices and they are multi billion dollar company. Also walls that reduce noise enough are big, sturdy and need to be build, which means that they don't change, if you have multiple teams, which grow in different paces, then it's unrealistic to always have the perfect office layout. – HopefullyHelpful Apr 25 '17 at 8:14
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    @Joe Blaming yourself in speech doesn't mean you blame yourself in truth. In this case, it is a white lie intended to make the social interaction smoother. – Wayne Conrad Apr 25 '17 at 14:58
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Well there's a few easy things to do first before saying anything to anyone about it. To start with you could use headphones or earplugs to block the noise out so you can concentrate.

You could also look to move desks if possible so you're further away potentially but that is still very passive.

Alternatively;

The British Approach

We're known for being passive aggressive but polite about it. Start off with 'sorry'. Apologise for being angry and say something to the effect of 'could you talk in one of the meeting rooms I'm finding it hard to concentrate'. Or you could subtly join in with the conversation and start moving so they follow you elsewhere in the office which would potentially make them a bit quieter from your desk at least.

Failing that, mention to a manager or colleagues to try and keep chat quiet in the main office and save prolonged conversations to meeting rooms.

Either way whilst they're putting you off doing work, raising a concern over the noise will make you look like the bad guy here so you may need to argue your reasoning to someone.

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    That is not the only British way, but I get in trouble on here for suggesting a relaxed and banterous approach – JohnHC Apr 24 '17 at 13:56
  • +1 I think you covered all possible solutions that would avoid conflict. Assertive without being obnoxious. – Richard U Apr 24 '17 at 14:16
  • I accidentally did that! I meant to up vote for the try to move desks suggestion. I edited your answer slightly so I could change my vote! – Mister Positive Apr 24 '17 at 15:19
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    @MisterPositive no worries. Although you changed apologise to have a 'z', I'm going to need a cup tea and a lie down. 🤣 – user66194 Apr 24 '17 at 15:32
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    @DanielJames You may have to apologize to MisterPositive: the popularity of the -ise ending appears to be a reaction to perceived corruption by the Yanks. – TripeHound Apr 25 '17 at 10:11
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It's a job for HR.

As this sounds like a widespread practice, not limited to one or two people, I'd suggest it's a job for HR to alert people and create and communicate a policy to the staff in general.

So I'd suggest discretely contacting HR and asking of they could e.g. email all staff (which would be anonymous from your point of view) requesting them to respect colleagues around them by not having discussions near cubical areas after meetings. Encourage staff to talk quietly in their own offices and cubicles and not loiter. Perhaps a more general "keep the noise down" policy.

This is only common sense, after all.

They might also post a notice near meeting rooms to reinforce the idea.

It probably won't completely eliminate the issue, but it may cut down the worst of it.

If you're in an open plan office it cuts both ways. People do have a right to expect to exchange reasonable off-the-cuff remarks (you don't want to create a repressive atmosphere), but they also need to respect those working around them by not loitering.

A somewhat more cynical way of looking at it is that you have an interesting opportunity to listen in on conversations and perhaps find out useful things you would not otherwise.

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    Last time that this happened to me -someone discretely contacted HR because our team was quite loud- the matter discretely went, in a few hours, level by level up to the president of the entire research center, and everything went so offhand so quickly that for months peoples were whispering even in the meeting rooms, friends stop being friends, budgets were cuts, projects closed, and the president decided that an open office was not the best format for us and they had to torn down the building and rebuilt it. So, TWO years later they destroyed half of the building to reconfigure the rooms... – motoDrizzt Apr 25 '17 at 6:29
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    ...only that just one year before, for different reasons, the other teams were relocated and ours disbanded so there was no need anymore for all of this. Bureaucrats! – motoDrizzt Apr 25 '17 at 6:30
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When I'm working at a client's office and a group discussion happens near my work area I simply stand up and say (with a big smile) "Gentlemen, go away, go away! I'm trying to put bugs in here." while simultaneously make shooing away motions with my hands.

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    Ah, the "i'd rather be the weird guy than the bad guy" approach - I like it. – ESR Apr 26 '17 at 2:18
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Not some deep profound answer, but since this appears to be a recurring issue in your case, I'll just add an idea that worked in a university I'm affiliated with where they had a recurring issue with noise during examinations.

One thing that can work, if there is a hallway outside the offices, is simply to put up a brightly coloured "Shhh... Please be quiet!" sign outside the office. Make sure it's very visible: one university I was at complained that even a sign in the middle of the corridor wasn't working, so they put up a red flashing bicycle light on top of the sign. They've rarely had problems since.

Evidently, you should check for departmental permission before just putting up such a sign. However, if you can, it will have two major positive effects:

  1. Alerts people of the need for quiet. Frequently, when people are jabbering away, it's not because they want to disturb, it's just carelessness. They hadn't thought of the fact that silence is appreciated. My guess is that a sign will take care of 80-90% of the problems.

  2. If the noise continues, they know already that quietness is appreciated; hence, you don't have to alert them of new information; you simply have to remind them of what the sign has already said. This gives you more authority, and therefore less of a confrontation is necessary to bring things into order.

Hope it helps!

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    This is still not fixing the underlying problem, namely that open spaces are not good for people who need to concentrate. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Apr 25 '17 at 6:27
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen Ehm, the question by the OP is how to remain polite while shooing people away, not how to solve the office layout. – Mr Lister Apr 26 '17 at 6:04
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If you want to resort to telling them yourself. I would suggest going along the lines:

I appreciate that your conversation may be of importance but I think it may benefit us both if you took it else where. It will benefit you since their will be less background noise and less people listening in whilst it would allow me to concentrate on my work.

This takes the standard format of

  • Say what is wrong.
  • Suggest an improvement.
  • Say how this benefits them as well as you.

You may be able to think of a better way that it benefits them but I think this overall structure is fairly polite.

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My experience has been that saying it politely but straight works well. Something like "I'm sorry but could you please continue this conversation somewhere else?" or a variation of it.

I don't recall anyone ever being offended by it (or at least not showing it).

That said, our situation was the opposite of what you describe. People, myself included, would start a short conversation at a colleagues desk and for valid reasons these conversations would grow long and possibly involve more people, without moving the conversation to a conference room.

After some time, we talked about this and many people were disturbed by this behavior but we're also sometimes doing it themselves. We agreed that it was fine to let people know that they should move their conversation to a room. Slowly over time the situation got better, and you could see the same people who started a conversation also saying things like "let's continue this discussion in another room".

Of course, open plan offices are still noisy and it's really hard to change that. Noise cancelling headphones help, but isn't a complete solution.

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We could overcomplicate things, but this is a common thing in my workplace, especially for my team. We tend to have discussions and our Scrum master (team member) can be quite loud. I guess it's in his nature.

When someone approaches us asking if we could be quiet or book a meeting room we won't get mad. We are humans, and we understand it bothers you and will tone down or move.

If you are sitting next to a meeting point e.g. coffee machine or whatever I'd suggest you ask your manager if you can be moved to a different section, because you are not performing like you would if it was more quiet. You can't keep people from meeting at the coffee corner!

If people won't listen, that's a different thing and then you can only indeed contact HR or whatever, but I honestly believe it will not become even close to that point.

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Besides what's already been suggested: while it might seem silly, a "friendly"sign on your door or somewhere they can see it is really useful. Might be a typical "do not talk loudly" or "keep quiet or you'll scare the programmers!", everything depending on your workspace, and the circumstances.

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If you don't like the idea of noise cancelling headphones:

If you are allowed or have the room on your desk or in your area you can put a semi-loud fan or white noise generator near you. The humming noise won't bother you and will dampen the sounds of the people talking. And if there is a way for you to block the line of sight from the conference room it will help you to not subconsciously listen for people to talk.

If you can't see people walk in to the conference room it won't be in the back of your mind while working to think "I hope they don't talk when they come out" then you actually tune into them more. So a distraction can work wonders.

protected by Jane S Apr 26 '17 at 13:51

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