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I work for a German software development company as a consultant. I'm happy and everything seems to be going well except for the fact that the company has an "open-door policy". This means we have to keep our doors open, unless we have a reason not to such as meetings or conference calls.

This is a problem for me as I'm very sensitive to noise to the point where I usually develop a migraine unless I block out sound with earplugs. When I first got here I had a solitary corner office where I kept the door closed to work in silence. I ended up being moved to another office with a new colleague. He's resisting closing the door and mentioned that I was actually moved because I always closed my door.

I explain how noise is a medical issue for me and while my management and colleagues appear understanding they say there's nothing they can do: in this company closed door means "don't bother me". My suggestion to put up a sign on the door wasn't acceptable. I suggested heavy duty earmuffs as an alternative but they all believe that would also signal that I don't want to talk to anyone. Their solution is to use normal headphones and listen to music. But I can't always do that! Some times I can, and some times I can't, and I definitely can't do that when I'm reading (which I also explained to my boss and HR).

This is my first job in industry and I'm very happy and wouldn't want to wreck it, but I'm unable to find a solution that will satisfy everyone. I don't want to sound pushy, and I don't want to sound like "it's my right to have a quiet environment". I'm looking for a fair compromise and way to bring up the issue again that won't make me seem unreasonable. How can I make it clear that this isn't working for me?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal May 11 '17 at 7:20
  • You know, I actually meant it! :O @rath – Fattie Nov 25 '18 at 3:55
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    There is absolutely no need to apologize to me, @rath . Your beautiful online manners merely embarrass me in comparison. Thanks for the informative comment! Thanks to you I can see that my original comment could be misunderstood. Cheers. – Fattie Nov 25 '18 at 11:05
  • Note that the moderators here aggressively delete comments they don't like, so it amounts to nothing. – Fattie Nov 25 '18 at 11:06

12 Answers 12

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Their solution is to use normal headphones and listen to music

That would perhaps be fine if you just had an aversion to noise, and who doesn't, but given the impact that background noise has on you medically it's evidently inadequate. And that makes it perfectly reasonable to push back against this.

If you already talked to HR about this specific issue, go back to them. Otherwise talk to your direct manager or the account manager for the client. Say something like the following (key points to hit are emphasized):

I wanted to revisit something we discussed a while ago with regards to me closing the door of my office due to the background noise. Looking back I get the impression that you believe this to be a minor issue and I just prefer a private office but it's more serious than that. I have chronic migraines that are triggered by noise. I find that the background noise present in the office when the door is open is causing a crippling migraine attack [insert frequency of attacks here]. Now I obviously want to respect the company policy but this current arrangement just isn't working for me. Going forward I'm going to need to be able to work in a relatively quiet environment which probably means closing the door or using heavy duty earmuffs to block out background noise. You've highlighted your concerns about this solution but I believe that it should be fine if I just explain that it's an accommodation for a medical issue and if I put up a sign that people are free to interrupt me even if the door is closed or I have those earmuffs on.

That's the general script you want to run with. In the US you'd drop key phrases like "reasonable accommodation", "medical condition" and "FLSA", but you'd have to be able to back up your self-diagnosis with at least some kind of doctor's note. I assume that similar employee protections exist in Germany so you could bring those up. Any HR employee should immediately recognise the gravity of this situation from a legal standpoint once you make it clear how much you are affected by this situation.

EDIT: I originally assumed you were contracted out to a client where this policy was set in stone, which tends to complicate these matters. Since this all happening internally and by your own assessment you struggle with building rapport with colleagues, it's indeed possible that they're using this as a way to get you to integrate in the team and, as enderland mentioned in his answer, to appear more accessible. They might not realise that this isn't a particularly good way of doing that given the detrimental effect noise has on your health.

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    Also note, you don't need to back this up with a diagnosis, you just need a doctor's note saying that noise is an issue for you and that you need a quiet place to work for medical reason. Your employer doesn't need to know the diagnosis. They only need to know what the limitation are (in this case sound). The diagnosis itself is confidential and they do not need to know. – SaggingRufus May 8 '17 at 13:27
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    @SnakeDoc, how do you propose coping with migraines? Also, they proposed multiple very reasonable ways of dealing with the issue, which would be completely fine in any office I've worked at. – Celos May 9 '17 at 6:55
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    @SnakeDoc: I don't see how noise sensitivity would render someone unfit for professional software consulting and development at most companies or even in general. Also, German employment law is very clear on that employers must take reasonable measures to accommodate medical issues of employees as long as they're generally fit for their line of work. I'm pretty sure that a calm work environment is a very reasonable measure for a software developer or any office work really. – David Foerster May 9 '17 at 6:56
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    @SnakeDoc And I don't see how the things the OP described in the question and the fact that this question is asked is NOT coping? Coping while doing their best to be able to work instead of just giving up and whining in a corner. As a fellow migraine sufferer (although luckily not to this extreme), a lot of things we have to do is finding coping strategies. Because locking yourself in a dark, silent room for the rest of your life is not exactly feasible. – skymningen May 9 '17 at 7:16
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    @SnakeDoc There are times to "suck it up" and play the hand you're dealt but as David mentions these are reasonable requests to make, especially when they're to accommodate a medical issue. Sure, if this was just "I prefer working in silence" then that's probably not something you want to push as a new entry to the workforce. But do you really think that managers and colleagues won't be understanding of the OP taking simple measures to avoid migraines? And that's purely looking at it on a professional level, usually employees also have a legal right to such accommodations. – Lilienthal May 9 '17 at 9:00
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One thing I used to do was wear earplugs under normal headphones. If you get passive noise cancelling headphones this has a pretty significant impact. I did this often even if I didn't listen to music.

I also talked with my team and told them that it was ok to "bother" me if I had headphones on so they knew.

Communication around the issue is pretty important. It's not normally the actual act of being separate that's the problem, it's how people feel about it.

There are a few things you can do for this. First, communicate with people more often. The root problem here is likely that your team or colleagues don't feel you are accessible. Proactively meet with people, spend a few minutes a day talking to colleagues.

Second, communicate around the issue. Most people are sympathetic around health/disability related issues if they know about them. If I know a colleague has an issue with noise, I will just prefer to IM them instead of talking in person (or whatever they suggest). How you go about communicating this is sort of dependent on how your interactions are.

And last, which might be most important - it might be that you are just not a good fit for this client. If nothing works out, talk with your consulting company and express the issue. It would be ideal if you have some sort of doctor's note or something during this process so it's more official than you just saying things from your perspective.

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    It's interesting we got to a point where office environment has become so noisy that having earplugs under headphone is normal. If we were handling heavy duty equipment all day I'd understand but that's office work. Unfortunately it doesn't look like these open offices, hated by employees but loved by management, are going away. – laurent May 9 '17 at 8:24
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    @this.lau_ Loved by the people who typically have their own office. lol. I'm sure the part companies love is the price. – jpmc26 May 9 '17 at 22:41
  • I personally like working in an open-space although I never experienced working in a private office. I usually listen to music with normal headphones, and when it begins to be to noisy I use noise-cancelling ones. I'm almost sure I would be sad, alone in an office. But I fully understand that some people prefer this over that, and I think I can understand that a few people cannot efficiently work in one or the other type of environment. – Tim May 10 '17 at 10:33
  • +1 for suggesting IM. I think it's a reasonable thing to be fairly accessible through IM and to communicate this. – yo' May 11 '17 at 19:28
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Please, don't take it personally, but it seems like you have some sort of disability (you took the trouble of finding a medical explanation for your condition). If you were missing a limb, you'd be provided with some assistive tools, if you were having chronic back problems you'd receive more ergonomic workplace, wouldn't you?

I see the following choices:

    • talk to the management again and explain your condition indicating that if your migraine triggers, you become highly unproductive.
    • Don't threaten them, just inform in the way that you also care about your best performance. If management keeps on sticking to the company rules etc, try something in style of "you wouldn't require a wheelchair person to stand up during a daily stand-up, would you?".
    • To support your request tell the management that you are prepared to inform your surrounding about your condition (hang a message on your door) - it is exceptional treatment you're requesting and you're open and clear about it.
  1. If you're not willing to talk to the management, ear protection (with some note on your desk explaining why) is the solution. I know about the following:

    • noise cancellation earphones (you already mentioned that the price puts you off)
    • motorcycle earplugs - they filter certain noise frequencies allowing face-to-face communication (bit cheaper than the above)
    • construction-site style ear muffs - will make your condition really visible but by some may be seen as passive-aggressive behaviour
    • small foam earplugs - less noticeable than above, also the cheapest solution however least comfortable (putting in and out takes time)
  2. Start looking for a new work environment.

It is your first job in the industry, but you're already aware that you don't want to be pushy - that's positive. Communication is the key - a reasonable employer will work this situation out. Good luck!

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    "it seems like you have some sort of disability" Weird to bring this up in an answer if you're not going anywhere with it, such as suggesting that OP get an "official" medical diagnosis of disability made. – Lilienthal May 8 '17 at 10:31
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    The current first paragraph could probably be removed. Just begin with your list of options. – Brandin May 8 '17 at 10:39
  • @Lilienthal - I assumed that OP already has some sort of medical diagnosis, taking into consideration that they have been struggling with the issue for years and has been examined for several factors (apparently their remark was edited out) – Mike May 8 '17 at 10:45
  • @Mike True, but OP didn't use "disability", though it could be a translation issue of course. A self-diagnosis has no value in the US, not sure about Germany, which is why you may want to change that wording. – Lilienthal May 8 '17 at 10:48
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    Why should OP for the solutions? Go to whoever is in charge of purchasing items for employees and tell them what you want. If they won't purchase it for you, close the door and start looking for a new job. – Stephan Bijzitter May 8 '17 at 12:46
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For me the key phrase is this :

This means we have to keep our doors open, unless we have a reason not to ...

You have a medical reason not to. It should, in principle, merely require you to provide evidence of this to your managers and HR to justify closing your door as a norm. This is the direction you need to take, IMO.

I explain how noise is a medical issue for me and while my management and colleagues appear understanding they say there's nothing they can do: in this company closed door means "don't bother me". My suggestion to put up a sign on the door wasn't acceptable.

This is a fundamentally unreasonable viewpoint, but, if they insist on taking this view and HR back them, not you, then it's simply a working environment you cannot tolerate and you need to look for a new job elsewhere.

You should, however, approach this formally through HR, not relying on managers. Managers, alas, often prioritize not challenging rules over making a stand on common sense grounds. HR are often much more concerned with health and safety concerns (with legal repercussions) and will prioritize them over other rules and policies, which is why they may overrule managers in this case.

I would also suggest you make this known to people around you and with whom you deal, formally or informally as you feel is best, so that they do not think you're being unfriendly or aloof or something like that.

  • only trouble I have with this answer, is that, considering the current management practices all around the world, it's actually likely to be worse elsewhere. At least, he's got walls, not a full open-space which is far worse. – gazzz0x2z May 10 '17 at 14:48
  • Everywhere is different and it's worth looking for alternatives, because you definitely won't find them if you don't look. I know someone with a medical condition that causes pain when it's noisy, but they can function OK in moderate conditions. It may simply be a more noisy than average office, and a move might do the trick. – StephenG May 10 '17 at 15:11
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I use regular headphones emitting noise (rather than music; music distracts me).

This allows me to drown out the environment noise in an adjustable way (I'll shift the levers depending on my task and the noisiness of the people around me) without shutting myself out completely, without being overly distracted, and without requiring nonstandard equipment.

Sources of continuous noise are freely available on the web; I tend to use simplynoise or simplyrain, but there are plenty more.

P.S. Active noise cancelling also helps; although designed to filter out low-frequency noise rather than voices, it noticeably quietens the environment noise and can make conversations less distracting, especially when combined with higher-frequency artificial noise.

  • simplynoise is a lifesaver! – thumbtackthief May 8 '17 at 17:03
  • I find that simplyrain combined with rain.today is even more effective - although it does leave my ears ringing slightly for ~30 seconds afterwards. – wizzwizz4 May 8 '17 at 17:55
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    @wizzwizz4 ears ringing is a very concerning sign that you're listening to something at a too high volume level. Like you're damaging your ears and inviting the early onset of hearing loss. Maybe rethink doing that. – user1306322 May 9 '17 at 1:24
  • @user1306322 Perhaps it's the higher frequencies; I'll change the spectrum of noise in future. I have my headphones well below the usual limit, but high-pitched sounds are quite high-energy. – wizzwizz4 May 9 '17 at 6:32
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    @wizzwizz4 problem with certain frequencies of sound is that you don't perceive all frequency ranges as "loud" and you may be turning it way too high to be healthy without actually noticing that it's too high. Like the dog whistles, you know. You can't distinguish the frequency but it doesn't mean there's no vibration. The ringing is a telltale sign that it's too high and doing harm. I suggest looking for alternative methods if you value your hearing. – user1306322 May 9 '17 at 6:54
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Earplugs. They are far more discreet than earmuffs, emit no sound, and will help you tremendously.

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  • You're in the right country. Apart from the picture showing an inferior quality earplug, why is this downvoted? – gerrit May 8 '17 at 15:16
  • Earplugs were already suggested as an answer. ( I am not your down voter, just a guess ) – Mister Positive May 8 '17 at 16:14
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    @MisterPositive I believe this answer came prior to that answer; at least thats how it appears on my timeline – mkingsbu May 8 '17 at 19:10
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    I have similar problem as OP, and the earplugs just annoyed me. – BЈовић May 9 '17 at 6:05
  • @BЈовић But they seem to be fine using them every night to sleep, so this is not a concern in that case. – skymningen May 9 '17 at 7:17
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I explain how noise is a medical issue for me and while my management and colleagues appear understanding they say there's nothing they can do: in this company closed door means "don't bother me".

They don't believe you.

The next step is to get a doctor's note and email your employer once you have it. That request needs to be done in writing, or I'm afraid it may not be taken seriously.

Also, HR needs to be your primary recipient, not your manager. You should carbon copy your manager, yes, but you should realize that your manager or your director or your colleagues were never specifically trained to handle that type of issue, so don't take what they say about this issue too seriously.

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You need to deal with your disability. Inability to handle noise coming from outside your room in a normal office environment is going to be a weight around your neck your whole career.

Take ownership of your problem and try to remedy it without involving everyone else, you have already done too much in that regard in my opinion.

Get some medical attention and advice.

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    Good thing OP doesn't have a physical issue: "you need to deal with your disability. Inability to walk up the flights of steps in a normal office environment...." eyeroll - it's a culture policy - nothing wrong with trying to get reasonable accommodation – NKCampbell May 8 '17 at 21:15
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    @NKCampbell it's not a physical issue the OP can point out and be easily understood, he took a job in an open office environment and he can't handle noise from outside his room, if I was his boss that would make him/her unsuitable for the position, not worthy of special treatment. – Kilisi May 9 '17 at 9:09
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    @NKCampbell ideally the OP would have had it at the start or after the first 'no' – Kilisi May 9 '17 at 14:30
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    true- but OP can't honestly know how the situation affects them until they experience it. Maybe as you said, they initially tried to manage it on their own without kicking up a fuss and now it has gone too far for them to handle – NKCampbell May 9 '17 at 14:47
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    Umm, if that's what your answer is really about, then that's not clear. What your answer appears to be about is "Suck it up, buttercup." – Ellesedil May 9 '17 at 19:47
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One reasonable accommodation might be to keep your door closed, but with a sign on the outside that says in big letters "Please come in" with, in smaller letters, an explanation that your door is closed only to reduce ambient noise, not to prevent interaction.

Encourage your colleagues to come in to discuss things with you just as casually when the sign is up as they would if the door were open.

If your door is actually closed because of e.g. a telephone meeting, take down the sign.

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    Indeed very reasonable but note that the OP already suggested this without success. I've edited his comment into the main post. – Lilienthal May 8 '17 at 13:39
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You are in a difficult position.

As someone with multiple disabilities myself, I can tell you that you should do everything you can to ameliorate the situation yourself first, then take up the issue with management for the things you can't.

As some have said, use noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs. If this still doesn't work, then approach the management and ask for accommodation. If you demonstrate the initiative by trying to solve the issue yourself first, it will go a long way with management.

It simply looks much better if you can go to management and say. "I have sensitivity to noise. I have tried earplugs, headphones, (and anything else you've tried) I am still having difficulties. What can we do to fix this".

This serves two purposes. First, this will demonstrate to your employer that you are not being unreasonable, but have actually tried to fix the problem yourself. Second, if you document everything you have done to make your situation better and you need to get the law involved, you will have your efforts as evidence of you being reasonable, and the employer being unreasonable.

Be careful, as even German companies can (and have) circumvent the laws by finding reasons not related to your disabilities, to get rid of you. One favored trick is to hold you to the letter of every company policy, which is again why you should document your efforts to lessen the impact of your environment.

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I do feel your pain. I have Hyperacusia and Auditory Processing Disorder. It affects not just in the office, but all day long.

Trying to sleep in noisy neighborhood seems impossible to most of people, but I soon realized that I really was under average. Even getting rid of noise, my brain was always in a loop trying to detect the next annoying sound in the new environment sound threshold, such as dog barking blocks away. The very same for car horns. I only feel comfortable with a background white/pink-noise sound-like.

I recent went through the same issue in my work, a small company working in the same room, with often uneducated noises, topics and discussions about other projects reaching everyone in the office. I can't say just one attitude can solve your problem, but a mix of them.

The solution goes to two different paths: Active and Passive attitudes.

Active attitudes:

  • Talk with HR and/or your boss about your problem, how does it affect your productivity and how much company would win also with a solution for you. From my experience, they will give a sh** if you no offer a loose-loose problem with a win-win solution. Probably, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

    As you've said, you already had this discussion, let's jump to next option.

  • "this isn't working for me": this is crystal clear and self-explanatory. The company does not fit for you. Just like that. It's very important to get from your perspective and not "I'm not fitting in this company" as you are the fish out the water. You just need a place where you are happy and you are comfortable.

    I imagine you are looking for a solution without jump into this final one as you're new in the job, but I'm afraid the company culture does not permit that.

Passive attitudes:

  • Headphones. Good ones. With noise-cancelling. I bought recently a Bose QuietComfort 25 which I don't regret at all despite the price. It worth getting one with similar quality with no doubt. Think about your health, your quality of life. I use every day and I let everybody know that they can reach me anytime. You don't need to listen music, most of times just the noise-cancelling active. Often music doesn't help too, mainly the singed, try instrumental, such as Classical, Soundtracks and New Age/relaxing musics.

    It also promotes conversations by Skype or email, and IMHO I consider it better as it makes everything documented, due to nature of communication; clearer, because one tend to make himself clearer to compensate a more formal not face-to-face communication; productive, as it isn't task-blocking (one can finish what you're doing right now and/or think a bit more before respond to communication).

    Don't ever, never, niemals use earplugs, earphones or earbuds. It gets easy to use them in a unhealthy way. Even standard cheap headphones led me to tinnitus, in part due to lack of sound isolation.

Ortogonal solutions:

  • While trying to solve your specific problem at work, I highly recommend to try to solve your condition too. I suggest you to take Brief or Cognitive Behavioral therapy. Please don't take me wrong, people are more far to perfect than they try to seem to be.

*For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I'm going to assume that every statement is true, e.g. your colleague said the truth regarding the reason you were relocated. For the same reason I'm going to suppress adverbs, creating some generalizations.

When I first got here I had a solitary corner office where I kept the door closed to work in silence. I ended up being moved to another office with a new colleague. He's resisting closing the door and mentioned that I was actually moved because I always closed my door.

That sounds a disastrous way to solve your problem. But it seems also that they are being rebuked indirectly because you represent a problem that they don't know how (or don't want) to deal.

I explain how noise is a medical issue for me and while my management and colleagues appear understanding they say there's nothing they can do: in this company closed door means "don't bother me". My suggestion to put up a sign on the door wasn't acceptable.

They are not willing to flexibilize or making exceptions of a social convention to them even for medical reason - not at least for the new guy, who is also new in the industry. They don't want to make you an example for your colleagues. Imagine that after you everyone could want a closed door for 'X' acceptable reasons and they don't wanna loose control.

I suggested heavy duty earmuffs as an alternative but they all believe that would also signal that I don't want to talk to anyone. Their solution is to use normal headphones and listen to music.

You are backing off, proposing a solution, I have exposed your medical condition, you are suffering migraines, and they don't like it because it would "signal that I don't want to talk to anyone". Do you realize how disrespectful to your concerns it is? They know what's going on, what difference does it make what are you using in your ears? This is beyond ridiculous. This is again a clear signal that they are not willing backing off and expect you fit in what they consider acceptable, because they see you as a workforce, not as an individual.

which I also explained to my boss and HR

Yeah.. you talk to them, but on their mind it is your problem and should deal with that, not them.

This is my first job in industry and I'm very happy and wouldn't want to wreck it

They are counting on that to expect you flexibilize more and adopt one solution acceptable for them.

but I'm unable to find a solution that will satisfy everyone.

There's nothing much to do about it. Keep your clear conscience that you've been fair, reasonable and you've tried to make it work.

I don't want to sound pushy, and I don't want to sound like "it's my right to have a quiet environment". I'm looking for a fair compromise and way to bring up the issue again that won't make me seem unreasonable.

It is your right to have a positive environment for your productivity. They are sound pushy and unreasonable.


You see, I'm not advising you to impose your needs over the team's, wanna everybody to be quiet because of you - for example. That would be unreasonable. You've showed us you were being reasonable. They just won't change any of their social conventions and rules for the new guy. They don't want the new guy as a "bad" example.

Your situation is like this one in a job opportunity proposal:

HR - How much is your salary expectation?
Me - $100,000/year.
HR - We offer you 90.
Me - I would accept 95.
HR - We offer you 92.
Me - ¬¬

How can I make it clear that this isn't working for me?

Try a noise-cancelling headphone and do your best job while seeking for one place that matches with you.

Everybody will be happy - if your current company won't, they'll have learned a lesson then.

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  1. Check the sources for noise and how to reduce them. For example, there might a popular spot close where people discuss issues. Ask for this place to be relocated or ask to close the door while these discussions take place. This looks more reasonable from a manager's point of view than having the door closed all the time.

    Company phones are often another source of noise that can be easily reduced by setting the loudness to what is actually necessary to hear the phone next to you instead of the default setting.

  2. Software companies often have flexible working hours. Starting work at the most early or most late allowed time already mitigates a lot of noise. If you can then find an agreement that you can have the door closed for two hours a day, you might have covered already most of your working time.

  3. Try to create an environment that makes people feel bad for creating noise. If your office environment looks like a factory, this is the noise it will generate. You cannot change the architecture, but adding plants to the hallway, relaxing colors like pale green and calming posters all help.

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