Noise annoys (or why you should keep it down in the office)

Back in January the New York Times published a piece by Susan Cain titled “The Rise of the New Groupthink” in anticipation of her new book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. I remember reading it at the time and thinking “that’s me! I’m not alone!”. I haven’t read her book yet, but, from the reviews I’ve read and her NYT piece, I believe the gist of her argument is that extroverts have taken over the world, much to the detriment of introverts. In addition, extroversion and introversion have lost their meaning as descriptions of personality and become laden with the value judgements “good” and “bad” respectively.

“The new groupthink” is my worst nightmare. For as long as I can remember, from primary school to university, I have despised being needlessly coerced into group work when I would have much preferred to work alone. Research has shown that you are more creative with privacy and in solitude. Simply, I’d rather work autonomously, alone. I work in a group now—two post-docs, another PhD student and a couple of exchange students—but we work on independently on our own closely-linked projects, whilst sharing ideas, helping and asking each other for advice. When I need to make a major decision, or am unsure which option to take, I speak to my supervisor. I’m really happy with this arrangement; I value my freedom and independence.

Whilst I have a lot academic freedom, I feel trapped in my office. Another story published this weekend, also in the NYT, covered the growing disquiet and discontent with the ubiquitous open plan office.

Aside from saving money on rent, the rationale behind the open plan office was to increase communication, collaboration and innovation. In a university, especially one like mine in the middle of a major city, space is at premium so everyone gets crammed in an open office.

However research mentioned in the article shows that workers in open plan offices suffer because they have little privacy and lots of noise. Speech noise is especially bad because it is directly understood by the brain and disrupts one’s focus from the task at hand. Introverts are affected more than extroverts. Extroverts—the noisemakers—don’t care. They simply can’t comprehend introversion.

Before I started my PhD I was excited about getting my own desk. There is nowhere quiet to work on campus. Wherever you go, there will be someone making a racket, even in “silent areas”. The library is packed and full of people talking and the computer rooms in my department are often louder than the cafe next door. So I thought my desk would be a chance to get some quiet.

Unfortunately my desk is no better. It’s right by the office kitchen area, where, for at least three hours a day, people from the surrounding offices drop by for breaks and lunch and make a lot of noise in the process. Furthermore, I’m near the entrance walkway, so everyone can see what I’m doing and often can’t help but comment on it.

One person in the NYT story said that “headphones are the new wall”. I wish! I can only work to music for so many hours a day before my brain turns to mush (I can program but generally not read to music) and my in-ear passive headphones don’t drown out background noise without being uncomfortably loud. I’ve even tried listening to white, pink and brown noise, but it doesn’t work.

Up until recently, I was writing a review and so spent most of my day at my desk. I found it rather stressful and impossible to concentrate. Fortunately, I’m back in the lab a lot (drone of the fume hoods or 6music on the radio—equally good), but it’s still a pain trying to work at my desk.

I’ve no idea what to do about the situation. Asking people to be quiet will give me a reputation for being grumpy. Moving to another office would be rubbish, as I’d be away from my group and labs. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to put up with it. Reading the aforementioned articles has made me realise I’m not alone in hating my open plan office and that introversion is perfectly normal. But it has also reinforced my view that I should be able to work in peace and others should be a bit more considerate.

2 thoughts on “Noise annoys (or why you should keep it down in the office)”

  1. I don’t know if there is a good solution. In my own Uni it’s the same story. We have an open desk space for 4 research groups (ca. 30 desks) and it’s never quiet, mainly because of people chatting or talking loudly on the phone. My own solution for the writing up was having my headphones on with some high-paced music covering a large spectrum (bass-treble-wise). You could use earplugs too if not too fond of music (I could find some in the student shops for very low price).

    But, agreed, being the grumpy one is not the reputation you want. I remember a student that was so intolerant to noise and demonstrative about it that her reputation was passed down generation after generation of students.

    Maybe for the paperwork you can agree with your boss to work from home? If your PI can trust you, there are no reasons why he wouldn’t accept it.

    1. Thankfully, this tale of woe has a happy ending. One of my colleagues moved back to Singapore, freeing up her very private desk in the corner of my office as far from the kitchen as possible.

      I quickly snapped it up and I’m now surrounded by walls/cubicle walls. There’s an air conditioning unit in the ceiling above me. It was quite annoying to begin with, but the white noise it generates drowns out most noise around me. The colleagues immediately next to me are much quieter too—I think they’ve known for a while that it’s much, much quieter down here. I love it.

      Universities really should think twice about cramming everyone into huge open plan offices. It’s fine for some people, but not for others.

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