Surviving an open-plan office

April 2015

Like apparently every other startup in San Francisco, Theorem works in an open plan office.

Not by choice. It was long ago that the barbarian hordes swept across Silicon Valley with battle cries of “less square footage per head!” and “increased collaboration!”, demolishing every interior wall in their path. Against such ferocity, Theorem could do nothing but cower and submit and try not to make too many loud noises.1

Unfortunately, Theorem works in an open plan office with other companies. Companies who scorn politeness, who tell loud jokes to each other and hold all-hands standup meetings at their desks2 and who would probably not like me very much if I told them to be quiet as often as I want to.

In the depths of an open plan office, you learn many things. You learn how impossible it is to write computer programs with conversation in the background. You learn which of your coworkers care about how much money Warren Buffett has. But most importantly, you learn the tools of survival.

Here’s what I know.

Music

I’m only mentioning this here because people keep suggesting it to me as though it would make me less distracted. I’m a musician. It doesn’t. I’ve tried about a zillion different genres. No luck.

I had a little bit more success with piping brown noise through my headphones, but it was actually really annoying to set up. (It turns out the most convenient way to play brown noise from a computer, in the year 2015, is to run a command-line program.)

On the other hand, my roommate swears by listening to two different songs simultaneously, which I guess is proof that no matter how crazy a noise-blocking idea might sound, there’s someone for whom it’ll work. As with the rest of this list, your mileage may vary.

Earplugs

Earplugs were the first thing I tried. Unfortunately, they only partially worked; they made it a bit less likely that I would notice conversations starting up around me, but once I did notice, they didn’t help me tune it out. Since sticking things in my ear is kind of uncomfortable, I decided it wasn’t worth it.

Also, people would not notice the earplugs and try to talk to me and then get annoyed when I didn’t respond. I considered taping a giant “DO NOT DISTURB” sign to my forehead, but I decided that would be even less comfortable than the earplugs.

Folding room dividers

A surprisingly helpful purchase was the eight-panel version of this Japanese-style folding screen. (I got one when it was marked down to about $80.) I wrapped it around my desk to block out the visual conversational cues from the people sitting across from me.

It turns out that visual cues of conversation seem to be nearly as distracting to me as the conversational noise itself, so this actually resolved a lot of my distraction problems. But with the screen alone, I could still hear people’s conversations and get distracted by them. I solve that problem with…

Shotgun earmuffs

The next-most-important thing I actually ended up using is this set of earmuffs designed for a shotgun range, which are both more comfortable and more insulating than earplugs (their closest competitor). As an added bonus, they’re (slightly) less dorky than taping a giant “DO NOT DISTURB” sign to my forehead while achieving the same effect.

Work from home

To the extent that I can get away with it, this is clearly the best option: nothing attenuates noise like being 10 miles away. I work from home maybe once a week on average and tend to be way more productive (and the extra 90 minutes of non-commute time is a nice bonus too). Unfortunately, working remotely makes it harder to do things like “collaborate with teammates” or “participate in discussions” or “solve other people’s problems for them,” which means that people sometimes get sad when you do it too often.

Shifted schedule

I’ve considered trying to shift my schedule to spend more time in the office when it’s less active–being there, say, 7:30-3:30 instead of 10-6. The downside is that weeknight social events are not kind to early risers, especially those who need 10 hours of sleep. The upside is that it’s a lot easier to play Super Smash Brothers on the office Wii U when there’s no one else around.

Anyway, I don’t care about Smash as much as my social life (yet), so I haven’t gotten around to trying this. But it seems like a good option if my less extreme measures fail.

Noise-canceling headphones

I tried some of these in a Bose store, but they had the opposite effect of what I wanted–they attenuated general background noise (non-distracting buzzes or roars) while leaving nearby conversations intact! Let me know when Bose comes out with “signal-canceling” headphones instead.


  1. Also, beggars can’t be choosers, and when you’re looking for office space in San Francisco, everyone is a beggar. 

  2. Yes, this really happened. They had someone on speakerphone too. 

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Nat

Super Smash Brothers Melée lives! Have you tried noise isolating headphones? I think have a pair from Direct Sound. They have all the stylishness of shotgun earmuffs, but you can play Brown noise through them (thanks to the Wikipedia article I know to capitalize Brown…)


Aceso Under Glass

Seconding noise-isolating headphones. Most headphones and ear plugs are designed to filter out white noise so you can hear voices better. Noise isolating are meant for musicians to hear their instrument when they’re playing in a venue with a sound delay.

That said, I eventually got used to mine. But they help.


Anonymous

A combination of the Bose QC15 (or their successors) and the Hearos Xtreme Protection earplugs will block out pretty almost all noise. I didn’t find the combination very comfortable, though.


Dan Dascalescu

Those shotgun earmuffs only offer 34db NRR, while [Howard Leigh earplugs])http://www.amazon.com/Howard-Leight-Earplugs-Uncorded-NRR33/dp/B0013A0C0Y_ offer 33 and are far less bulky.


Anonymous

I have a post on my blog about my search of the best noise control in the office (you can find it here: http://e1z.ca/code/clog/?p=225).

The TLDR: for $46 you can get the Leight Sync earmuffs and the MPOW bluetooth receiver and listen to brown noise at Simply Noise. It works very well for me.