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I work in a small room with 9 people, and the area is completely open (think school classroom). People are frequently having loud conversations and I am unable to concentrate when writing code (I am easily distracted). Asking my manager to relocate my desk is not an option, as there is no other openings.

Can someone make some suggestions on how to get work done in this office environment?

I have tried the following:

  1. Headphones - I find myself focusing on the music at this point and still have a hard time concentrating. I also find that I need to turn up the volume really far to drown out people.
  2. White Noise - This worked better than music, but I still hear conversation a decent amount.

I am currently considering the following:

  1. Bose Noise Cancelling headphones - Unfortunately I have read they only cancel low frequencies. Can anyone confirm?
  2. Ear plugs - Though I'm afraid that this would 'offend' people in an office environment. Anyone have any thoughts about this? Thanks!
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Noise canceling earphones are specifically designed not to cancel human voice. So they do cancel both low and high frequencies, just not the frequency around 100-200Hz. –  vartec Nov 27 '12 at 12:27
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Can you tell them to keep their voice down because you're trying to work? Or ask them to chat on IMs. –  Muz Nov 28 '12 at 3:10

5 Answers 5

I tried listening to music also, but after some time your ears get hurt and that's disturbing.

Now that you mentioned ear-plugs, I got an idea that you can put in your ear-plugs and then some big headphones to cover ear-plugs so people are not "offended".

But for the long term, it's best to practice concentration to sharp the focus on only what u do.

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Do not forget to find out who of your roommates has the same problems and have them help both to

  • complain to the noisemakers.
  • complain to the management about the contraproductive work environment. You won't believe the rubbish they get told about the "productivity of open space environments" and how rarely their victims actually complain.
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+1 It is very important to solve the real source of the problem. May be easier than it seems at first. –  Nicolás Dec 5 '12 at 0:07

My solution for this: use the most comfortable in-ear phones I can (no noise cancelling necessary) and a program like Ambiance for background sounds (I prefer "rain on a tent" and surf sounds, etc). I find this more effective then noise cancelling and without the annoying amplification of my own sounds that I get with earplugs.

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From my experience the noise-cancelling headphones will not work for longer periods.

I know you said about music and that you concentrate on it instead. In my experience it is about a choice of the music. There are a few points to consider.

  1. I found that the music needs to be instrumental, not vocal. If there is any vocal at least it must be in a language I don't know. I sometimes listen Brazilian radio stations as it is nice music and do not disturb me.
  2. A rhythm of the music needs to be stable without too much change
  3. A tempo of the music needs to suit my needs at the moment. I often listen ambient during a day as it is not too fast but nice and some house or trans during the night as it also get me more concentrated.

There are good radio stations here try grove salad, tag's and Suburbs of Goa, they my favourites. Coming back to headphones I found that noise-cancelling one covers whole ear and it is too hot. Simply my ears start to sweat which annoys me. The earphones and earplugs gives me pain after about 5 hours and problems next day.

Coming back to office environment, maybe tell your colleagues to respect others. Keep all fire doors shut as they not supposed to be used to entrance and put some notes around.

Probably there is some other action you can take like go to management and try some disciplinary actions but not sure if anyone want to go for it.

On the end of the day if you have such problems your colleagues got the same

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Which type of music fits depends purely on the person, I think. For example, I am listening to Metal (Symphonic) if I want to block out office noise and "get into the zone". I'm using noise-cancelling in-ear headphones and can adjust the volume easily to drown out everything else. As to tempo and rythm I think that Symphonic Metal is actually great, because there are slow passages with gentle singing as well as fast paced, aggressive passages. It's all about personal taste, I presume. –  enzi Nov 27 '12 at 7:18
    
Totally agree. The type to choose is all about preferences. I also read long time ago about interference of classic music with brain waves frequencies and how much classic influence is in Metal, although not sure how true it was –  tomasz74 Nov 27 '12 at 10:48

Not sure about that brand specifically, but noise-cancelling earphones + (relatively quiet) music worked for me, when I was in a similar situation.

The noise cancellation isn't perfect, but mutes the outside sounds enough that music is capable of drowning them out almost completely.

(Note: the above setup made it somewhat harder to get my attention, so my colleagues had to send me an IM message or walk into my field of vision and get my attention before addressing a question to me - I wouldn't notice if they just started talking at me.)

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Having bought a pair of noise-cancelling phones myself, I'd agree with this. They'll still block out 80% of the noise, along with other annoying effects like typing sounds and phones. –  Muz Jan 23 '13 at 3:59

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