Office Noise Workarounds

I’ve always struggled with the noise in typical office environments. It’s conversational noise that’s the problem. If there is any kind of conversation going on within earshot, the part of my brain that deals with language just tunes in to it. I can’t help it, I just have to listen! Of course, that part of my brain is also used for reading and writing documents and code, so it makes it very difficult to get work done. I suspect I suffer from this more than most other people. Every office I have ever worked in was too noisy for me, even the so-called quiet ones. In fact, the quiet ones can be worse. If everyone is talking at once, the individual conversations become part of the general background noise and it’s hard to distinguish each conversation. But in a quiet office where there is one single conversation going on you can hear every word clearly.

I may have a particular problem with this, but I think the problem occurs to some extent for all developers. The effect of noise and interruptions on programmer productivity was covered extensively in the excellent book Peopleware. I’d love it if more companies recognised that developers need quiet time to get their work done, and gave them private offices. But I’ve never seen this in any of the companies I’ve worked for, and I don’t really expect it to start happening any time soon. If anything, the problem’s getting worse, as more and more offices get built or renovated in an open plan style.

I’ve found a few things that help me get my work done when I’m in a noisy office though. Although a few of these do involve leaving the office!


I’ve tried active noise-cancelling headphones, and while they’re great at blocking out engine noise while travelling, and other constant background noise, they’re not so great with conversation. They do take a lot of the bass out of people’s voices, leaving you with quite a tinny sound that can be easily overcome with whatever you’re listening to. But (and I know this sounds weird) I found they had a slightly negative effect on my ability to think properly. I’m not sure what it was; I just noticed that my concentration span was shorter when using them, and I couldn’t get as deeply into my work.

I’ve also tried earplugs. These make everything quieter but not silent, and eventually you get kind of used to them, and you can still hear conversations. Also, I feel a bit weird wearing earplugs. If someone wants to talk to you, you have to do the slightly disgusting thing of pulling them out of your ear so you can hear them properly. Headphones are bit more socially accepted, and also give a visible signal that you are busy and don’t want to be interrupted. Wearing headphones over earplugs could work if interruptions are a big problem.

But the solution I’ve settled on is the kind of in-ear phones that have a rubbery cup which helps to block outside noise a bit. The ones I use have good bass response, so the sound will block out most of the conversational noise.

White Noise

I sometimes listen to music. For those tasks that don’t require much creative or logical thought I find I can be pretty productive while listening to music. But the core of a developer’s work are those deeply creative tasks that require full attention. So most of the time I listen to an mp3 of white (or pink) noise. I actually find pink noise to be slightly “softer” and easier to listen to than white noise. But in either case, its sole purpose is to mask the background conversational hubbub of the office, without distracting the logical or creative parts of my brain with music. I often tweak the graphic equaliser in VLC to increase the volume in certain frequencies to better block out conversations.

This combination of in-ear phones with rubber seals and a pink noise mp3 is very effective at blocking out conversation. I’ve had people standing right behind me, saying my name, and not noticed them until they tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention.

Point Your Desk Away From People

Once you’ve got the sound blocked out, the main distractions are going to be visual. If you can see an interesting conversation going on in front of your desk, you might find you start tuning in to what’s being said, or even being tempted to pull out an earphone to listen. These distractions can be avoided if your desk faces away from the other people in the office. A window would be nice, but a wall will do. A big bank of monitors helps too!

Work From Home

If you live with people who are at home during the day, or you’re not allowed to work from home, this is probably going to be a non-starter. But if not, the perfectly quiet environment of your home can be a great place to work. There’s no conversational noise at all, so no need for any headphones.

While I can be productive with earphones and white noise, I still find I can think even more clearly in near-silence without headphones on. I can also talk to myself about the code I’m writing if I know I’m completely alone, and this can help to get the logic straight in a difficult coding problem.

Some people think better when they can move around. At home you can pace around if you want to, without feeling self-conscious.

Find a Meeting Room

Many open plan offices still have meeting rooms with doors that close. So if you have a laptop you can take it in there to get some work done. If it feels weird going there on your own, you could find a colleague who wants to be productive too, and pretend you’re having a meeting when really you’re both just working quietly. You do have to be prepared to be interrupted by people who want to have actual meetings though. I’ve also had small-minded bosses who don’t like the idea of meetings happening outside of their knowledge who will come and ask you what you’re doing.

As well as meeting rooms, there are sometimes café areas which are quiet at certain times. At one place I worked there was a canteen area which was only really used at lunchtime. So during the morning or afternoon it was a nice quiet place to go and work.