I amazed by the noise levels that are acceptable in the modern workplace.  I’m a self-employed wonk-for-hire — so I spend a lot of time working quietly by myself on my own terms — but sometimes I have to go to a client’s building and try to get work done in the cacophony that has become the public work space.  I have no idea how people get things done in the midst of the cubicle world where people yell into telephones and cellphones and each person has their own radio blaring and conversations take place from one corner of the workspace to the other and it is all done using a voice that curdles milk into whey.

I was recently stuck in a room — the office kitchen, actually — with six other people I did not know.  I had to get a proposal done, and right next to me sitting around a tiny table were the six led by one LOUD TALKER who was screaming at the top of her lungs as if the ears she was trying to reach were in Africa and not less than a foot away from her gaping, steaming, pie hole.

The only way for me to drown out her droning was for me to put on my iPhone earbuds and turn up some Guns and Roses “Appetite for Destruction” and hope for the best.  The six next to me gave me a couple of snarky looks when they thought I wasn’t looking suggesting, perhaps, the music in my ears was bleeding into the room a bit and it was bothering them.  I wanted to say something about the YELLING IN MY EAR, but I decided to let them make the first real contact.  They did nothing except continue to glare at me:  Window reflections do wonders for revealing hubristic intentions.

My point for bringing up this “hiding from the noise by making your own noise” is as a response to this article published in the Harvard Business Review arguing we need to take off our headphones and interact with each other in the workplace:

My informal survey of a dozen people I know under the age of 35, working in a range of desk jobs, all in the U.S. — law firms, big entertainment companies, small start-ups, publishing houses — revealed that whatever the design of their office spaces, most younger people in our increasingly post-telephonic office world wear headphones about half of the time they’re working. And all but one of those I interviewed said that they had at least one G-chat or Skype window open throughout the day, every day — some of them checking in with as many as five non-work friends or family members every hour. And the majority of these young workers said that they felt far more connected moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any co-workers — the nearby colleagues, including bosses, with whom they communicate primarily through e-mails or chat programs.

Boy, is she insane in her Ivy-Walled membrane or what?  Doesn’t she realize sometimes we need to plug our ears to get work done?  Sometimes we need to hide from the noise pollution we did not create but must process.  Does that mean we’re alone in the company of others?  Sure, it does!  What’s wrong with that, though?  Why must we drive our ears and attention to the distraction of others?  I agree we’re soon headed into a telecommuting work environment, and the sooner we get there — and away from each other’s noise — the better it will be for the only thing that matters in the end:  Getting the work done with a whisper.

12 Comments

      1. I suppose it really matters what it is that you are doing and whether you are working as part of a team or on your own. If people regularly need access to your ears, headphones being on might not help. If you are a one man team however, leave those bad boys on and listen to some music! 🙂

        1. I would think being able to better concentrate by disassociation and headphones would actually help the team rather than hindering it. Some people are immune to noise pollution while others are paralyzed by the sounds.

          1. I’m specifically thinking of scenarios like this:

            Jones is sitting at his desk, looking down at his computer and listening to Depeche Mode. Smith comes by his desk.

            Smith — Jones! I need to ask you something.
            Jones continues humming to Depeche Mode.
            Smith — Jones. Hello!
            Jones does not hear him.
            Smith waves his hands in Jones’ face. Jones jumps back, startled, and falls back in his chair.

  1. I’ve gotten to texting the warehouse manager. He’s got a bluetooth headset permanently attached to both ears with ‘something’ busying his ears constantly. The order pullers can’t hear anything unless one stands directly in front of them. I’d say WORSE.