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Back to work: 3 ways to stay focused in a noisy office

3 min read
AUTHOR: Grace Williams

With some offices set to reopen as restrictions ease, more of us may soon be working from somewhere other than the kitchen table. While a return to the office may sound thrilling for some, this isn’t going to be the case for everyone.

A 2020 poll from YouGov found that most workers want to continue to work from home in some capacity after restrictions lift. But with news that some firms have requested staff to return to the office from September (in some form or another), office life will be on the horizon for at least some of us.

For many people, a return to the office may also mean a return to shared workspaces, which may take a bit of adjustment after so long working at home. This may be particularly the case if your at home office has been fairly quiet.

Prepare your space

Background sound can reduce performance on some tasks by up to 50%, so it’s worth thinking about what might help to keep this to a minimum.

If you really need to concentrate on a task, think about swapping desks or moving to a quieter area. If this isn’t possible, then noise-cancelling headphones may help block out background noise. If nothing else, wearing headphones sends a message to co-workers that you are less open to conversation and therefore less likely to be interrupted.

Plan for interruptions

If you do need to break off, or get pulled away, try to find a natural pause in your work. Research shows that dealing with interruptions between tasks is less disruptive than stopping what you are doing in the moment and trying to pick it up again later. You might want to quickly note down key points that were foremost in your mind, or leave the mouse cursor on the position reached in an article. These cues can help you to pick up where you left off. Even just pausing to make a mental note of what you were about to do next, can be beneficial when you come to resume.

Consider music (depending what you’re doing)

Research sows that it’s easier to work in quieter spaces, but some people feel that listening to music can be beneficial. Research has shown, for example, that if your task is design-based – such as product design or architecture – and if the task you are working on requires you to mentally rotate objects, then listening to your favourite music before you start can improve your performance for a short period of time.

But for tasks that involve remembering things in order or understanding the meaning of text – such as mental arithmetic and reading and writing – your brain will process background music as distraction. It doesn’t matter if it’s music you like or dislike, or even whether the music is loud or quiet – studies show that you will be more prone to making errors.

Ultimately, heading back to the workplace is going to mean an adjustment period and some level of compromise when it comes to noise levels and interruptions. But, with many companies taking a flexible approach to remote and office working, hopefully you’ll be able to find a balance (and noise level) that suits you wherever you are.