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THE NOISE PARADOX - suffering from too much or too little noise at work?

You may find it noisy and distracting if you’re stuck working in a classic open-space office. Employers justify these places as encouraging creative collaboration.

For example, at Cisco, the tech group describes their offices in the post-pandemic era as “talent collaboration centres”. Yet despite the fancy name, their main appeal is financial. They’re cheaper than providing personalised offices.

On the other hand, if you’re a hybrid worker, you may spend long hours working from home. Domestic noise from children, washing machines, or phones may send you into the consoling embrace of noise-cancelling headphones. While these may deliver a welcome silence, used over a long period, they can lead to a sense of isolation, even loneliness.

You may be lucky and work for a thoughtful employer who provides quiet places where you can concentrate. No talking, drinking or phones of any kind are allowed. The downside is prolonged exposure to these silent retreats can also be isolating.

A biomedical research facility in the UK costing about £650m ($837m) took years to plan. This veritable cathedral of science has vaulted ceilings, tall glass windows and a vast central atrium. Yet one year after the grand opening, it became clear that there was a severe problem.

In the ‘collaborative’ open-plan space, the laughter of colleagues celebrating their PhDs mingled

with the sound of hundreds of scientists earnestly discussing their projects proved highly disruptive. Some occupants complained they could barely think, let alone concentrate on the next Nobel Prize-winning discovery.

Despite its lofty aims, the building ran headlong into an awkward scientific truth. For some people listening to others chit-chatting can be enraging.

Listen, for example, to my podcast Episode 6, Chit Chat Chuka.

The Sound Paradox suggests that many hours of silence and time alone in the office, at home, or working remotely may also trigger a super-sensitivity to sound. Everyday sounds seem much louder than they should and can be painful. Jingling coins, a barking dog, a car engine, someone chewing, or a vacuum cleaner may irritate a super-sensitive person.

Are you annoyed by trivia, such as someone nearby shaking their leg or tapping a pencil while thinking? If so, you could be experiencing what the medics call mysophobia or hatred of certain sounds. This used to be dismissed as a rare condition. Not so today. One study of undergraduate students showed that as many as one in five were consistently bothered by specific sounds, such as throat clearing.

Trigger noises vary but tend to be chewing, breathing loudly, someone blowing her nose, coughing, or almost any other bodily noise. So why do some sounds push so many buttons? It’s unclear, but some people are more sensitive to certain sounds. And those who experience the side effects may try to avoid their triggers, which worsens the problem.

The noise paradox reveals what office space designers have long since realised and try to explain to their non-savvy clients. You and others now spend less and less time at desks and are working in third spaces.

The response of employers and designers is to create informal breakout areas and dedicated rooms where individuals can concentrate.

Or they set up special meet rooms where people can perform project-based work full of chaos, paper mountains and chart-ridden walls. Different types of rooms within an office where staff can work in small groups or alone can positively affect people’s productivity. Small spaces where phone calls and conference calls can be taken are becoming increasingly popular. Soon we can expect to see neat little phone booths emerging.

So why do some sounds and environments trigger disruptive sensitivity? At one end of the spectrum are those with an extreme aversion to sound. Certain everyday sounds may trigger intense anxiety, rage, or panic. While the cause may be unknown, personality and whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert probably affect your sensitivity to sounds.

Most studies find that everyone is better at doing complex tasks in total silence. You may be kidding yourself if you like background music because it helps you concentrate. Research suggests that even if that’s what you think, science points in the other direction. You probably perform worse as a result of these sounds.

Only some people work well in a noisy open-plan office environment. People may no longer have a door they can shut or walls that go from floor to ceiling. You may suffer from many more distractions in such places and want to retreat to one of those attractive, quiet places. No wonder so many employees think working from home is a better option.

What does the noise paradox of less or more noise imply for you? First, try to get clear if you prefer silence in which to concentrate and second, check whether your chosen new workspace provides it. It could profoundly influence your productivity and long-term success.


1. Conversations/gossip (42 per cent)

2. Loud phone voices (33 per cent)

3. Coughing/sneezing/sniffing (38 per cent)

4. Ringing phones (28 per cent)

5. Loud snacking/crisp packets (18 per cent)

6. Whistling (17 per cent)

7. Rhythmic tapping on the desk/floor (15 per cent)

8. Slamming doors (14 per cent)

9. Bad music on the radio (14 per cent)

10. Music spilling out of colleagues’ headphones (14 per cent)

11. Loud typing (12 per cent)

On the receiving end of sound at work, either too much or too little? Be willing to add some noise of your own by speaking up about unacceptable sounds that could undermine productivity--yours and that of your colleagues.

For more ways to succeed at work, listen to my next Podcast! Every Monday


For more ways to succeed at work, listen to my next
Podcast! Every Monday.


Take your next steps towards success at work with these
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