- A loud coworker can derail your productivity and make the working environment unpleasant.
- But telling a noisy colleague to pipe down isn’t a pleasant task. Even though they’re being rude, it’s natural to want to avoid confrontation.
- Luckily, there are ways to get your coworker to be a little quieter without ruffling any feathers in the office.
If you have ever worked in an open office or cube farm, there’s a very good chance you’ve dealt with a noisy neighbour.
“Loud and talkative coworkers can be one of the most annoying distractions on earth – and, unfortunately, they’re pretty common in today’s workplace,” said Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behaviour and Thrive in Your Job.”
Sometimes, the noise will consume you to a point where it feels like it’s all you can hear. You know you have to say something to make it stop, but telling your coworker to put a sock in it seems uncouth.
“Dealing with issues like this at work can be very awkward,” said Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of “You Can’t Be Serious! Putting Humour to Work.” “Most people want to avoid conflict, as it’s natural to want to get along and be liked by all your colleagues and to not be seen as high maintenance or a whiner, so the tendency is to grit your teeth and put up with it.”
But when you’re dealing with a protracted situation that affects your livelihood and productivity – for instance, when your neighbour’s voice carries into your client phone call, or distracts you from being able to compose an email – you know the line’s been crossed and you must take action.
“It’s time to prepare for a diplomatic conversation and choose your words carefully,” Taylor said.
Here’s how to have that conversation, or go about it in a more roundabout way:
Jacquelyn Smith contributed to a previous version of this article.
Have a conversation in a neutral zone
Taylor suggested taking your colleague to lunch or finding a neutral, quiet room or office to meet in.
“Regardless of the venue, first discuss common interests inside and outside of work. Be kind and friendly.”
Then try something like: “Hey, I need your advice on something. I know it can be challenging working in such close quarters. Is there anything I can do to improve your work experience being that we work so close by each other? Do I tap my pen or slam my cabinet? You never know until you ask!”
“Then, await a response before bringing up the issue,” Taylor said. “And when you do, say something along the lines of: ‘I really appreciate your input; thank you. For me, it’s sometimes difficult to concentrate, as I’m a bit sensitive to noise levels around me. I was wondering if you might have any suggestions.'” She recommended that you offer a compromise if necessary, such as morning or afternoon times being more critical for you to have more quiet time.
Then, thank your colleague for taking the time to listen to your concerns and end with a positive note.
If you don’t want to confront your coworker right away, here are some other suggestions.
Be sure that you’re not over-reacting
Have you done an objective reality check? Are you new to the environment and unaccustomed to the noise factor?
“Make sure that the issue is not partially your own, such as noise sensitivity on your part or really needing your space,” Taylor said.
Understand that you and your coworkers have different tolerance levels for noise
Disputes over noise levels can sometimes be an issue that separates out the introverts, who get their energy from quiet spaces, and the extroverts, who need to refuel their batteries with social interactions.
“Offering dedicated space and even times when the two different personality types can refuel in the manner best suited to them can help immensely,” Kerr said.
Bring the issue up with the entire office, so that no one feels singled out
Kerr recommended creating an informal survey of the top five office pet peeves. Then, discuss the survey results in a meeting.
It’s “a safe way to gently remind everyone of some basic office etiquette,” Kerr said.
Designate an official quiet zone
Hopefully, your office has some huddle rooms where individuals can work in peace. But if not, Kerr suggested designating a larger space to be a quiet zone.
Use fun signs and simple reminders that those areas are intended to be places where people can focus and work in peace, Kerr said.
“You also need to ensure then that there are ample spaces where people can meet to have conversations,” Kerr said.
Ask how you can be a better neighbour
Compromise is usually the secret to conflict resolution, and this is no exception. Taylor said to keep in mind that you might not be the ideal office mate, either.
“The golden rule is a two-way street,” Taylor said. “What if your cube neighbour dislikes your jacket hanging over the adjoining cube wall? What if you unwittingly slam your cube cabinet 20 times a day (even if you think the noise is drowned out by his thunderous voice)?”
So, ask your cube mate what you can do to improve the office environment before you barrage them with your own concerns.
Get noise-cancelling headphones
This isn’t a great permanent solution, but it can help.
“You don’t want to be seen as being rude, but proactively explaining to people that you work best when you block out all the background noise can smooth any ruffled feathers,” Kerr said.
“You may even implement a headphones etiquette rule, such as: Don’t disturb or interrupt people wearing headphones unless it’s absolutely critical,” he added.
Lead by example
When someone is talking too loudly and you know it’s upsetting the people around you, take the lead by saying, in a softer voice, “I want to hear what you have to say, but I don’t want to disturb the people around us, so can we step into a conference room or maybe chat about this at a better time?”
Confront situations when they arise
If conversations among your colleagues are distracting you, it’s ok to be frank and let your coworkers know, so long as you’re polite.
“Ask them if they wouldn’t mind taking their conversation elsewhere,” Kerr said. “Explaining that you have an important client call to make or a looming deadline that requires your full concentration will help make your request seem eminently reasonable.”
Allow your colleague to save face
No one likes to hear that they’re a blabbermouth, Taylor said.
“When you approach your colleague, leave room for saving face,” Taylor said. “You can address the lack of sound-proof walls, poor acoustics in the area, your sensitivity to noise and/or the occasional need to rise above all the clutter by speaking loudly to hear yourself think.”
In extreme cases of loud talkers, it may be necessary to take them aside and ask if they are aware of the volume of their voice
This can be difficult and uncomfortable – but your colleague might not even be aware of the issue and may appreciate the fact that you’re letting them know (especially if others in the office are affected).
If your colleague doesn’t take it well, apologise and explain that it’s not a personal attack or a comment on their character, Kerr said.
“Reiterate that your primary concern is that you really need to focus on your work at that moment and so you think it’s a reasonable request,” Kerr said.
If all else fails, ask for a new spot in the office
If every other solution has failed and you’re still getting distracted by your coworker, you may want to scope out other possible cube locations and then request a “relocation” from your boss.
“Prepare your thoughts in advance, let your boss know you’ve already broached the subject with your colleague, and discuss the ramifications it has on your work,” Taylor said.
Of course, this take has its negatives as well. So, only pursue it in a worst-case scenario.
“The downside of approaching your manager is possible fallout,” Taylor said. “Your relationship with your neighbour and general work environment may become more strained. You’ll have to weigh all sides.”
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