NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Although most of us would love to work in an isolated corner office or at a quiet desk free from distraction, the modern office environment leaves little room for privacy. While open office plans and thin cubicle walls may allow for more camaraderie and collaboration during the workday, it only takes one noisy employee to ruin everyone's focus.
When a loud co-worker is interfering with your capacity to meet deadlines or have a discreet talk with clients, it's time to speak up. Experts weigh in here on the best ways to approach the problem, and how to ensure your working relationship stays strong after things have quieted down.
Start by asking yourself how bad the problem really is, says Robyn Dizes, manager of Career Development Services at Peirce College in Philadelphia. It's important that your managers know you're a team player, and coexisting in the workplace with people who might occasionally be too loud is just part of the job.
"It's the workplace. Not everyone is going to talk and act the way you want them to," Dizes says. "We all have to live together in harmony, and more than likely you're going to have to find a way to compromise."
It's important to try to solve the problem yourself before taking your concerns to management, she explains, and how you approach the initial conversation is crucial.
It's best to start with a friendly but direct one-on-one chat, says Joe Utecht, crisis response manager with Ceridian LifeWorks. When you start the conversation, Utecht recommends favoring the word "I" over the word "you," so as not to seem accusatory.
"Say to them, 'I just want to mention this concern that I have had. I was speaking to someone on the phone the other day, and they could hear some background noise when we were talking, and I think that's coming through in my conversations. I just wanted to let you know."
Another way to approach the issue is to ask them if they've noticed your noise level as a problem.
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"You might want to start with something like, 'We're all sitting in this cube environment, and I know there are times when I might be loud and bothering you.' Depending on their response, you can follow that up by letting them know that you've experienced an issue," Utrecht says.
It's important not to focus on the person, Dizes says, because it's the behavior that's really the issue. At no point do you want the conversation to seem like an attack.
"Try letting them know, 'I don't know if you're aware, but your voice really carries, and I have a deadline and I'm having a hard time concentrating.'"
While Dizes admits this might hurt the person's feelings for a moment, they may not even be aware that they are being loud and they may be happy to have some constructive criticism. After your chat, if they tone down their noise level, Dizes says it's a good idea to thank them for their effort.
"On your way out of the office or in the next couple of days, just stop and say something like, 'Thank you for your receptiveness to our conversation, it really helped me out," she says.
Unfortunately, if your colleague doesn't have that positive reinforcement, they may be more likely to start back up again the next day. If the problem persists or you feel that your co-worker is being intentionally disrespectful, it's time to raise the issue with a manager, Utecht says — especially if it's not just a loud speaking voice that has you upset. There are lots of things employees can do to make unnecessary noise: grinding coffee, playing music or using an app on their phone that makes sounds. All of those are valid concerns to raise with a supervisor.
If you do raise the issue with your supervisor, Dizes says it's a good idea to see if the three of you — you, your manager, and your noisy colleague — can meet at the same time to find a solution.
"Request a meeting with everyone. It's not a confidential matter," she says. "The manager can mediate a little bit. If it happens behind closed doors people sometimes get upset because they start wondering what was said, but if it's all done together, with everyone on the same page, then it's easier to see that no one is trying to hurt your feelings — they just have deadlines to meet."
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All managers want to foster a positive and healthy work environment, Utecht says. Because they want their employees to be as productive and stress-free as possible, most will try to deal with the matter in a manner that will be satisfactory to all employees. This is assuming, of course, they have the resources and space to do so.
"It would be ideal if your manager could find your noisy colleague their own little private nook, but most offices don't have extra space for people," Dizes says. "You may find that old-fashioned earplugs might be your best friend, or if you're on deadline for a project that requires total concentration, you may be able to find a conference room and go in there and work."
Companies with deeper pockets may want to look into things such as sound machines — machines that produce "white noise" that help louder noises blend into the background, Utecht says. Additionally, headsets that are noise canceling can be used when you're making important calls.
At the very least, your manager should be able to send out a generic email to the staff asking people to be mindful of their noise level, Utecht says. Sometimes a broad reminder is all they need, especially if others around them quiet down as a result.
Because the vast majority of employees want to have good working relationships with their co-workers, most will make an effort to adjust their noise level when asked, he says.
"If they are doing something that is bothering someone else, they will want to deal with that," he says. "When you have your conversation, remind them that your relationship is more valuable to them than your getting your way on this particular issue, and they'll most likely do what they can to keep that rapport at its best."
— By Kathryn Tuggle