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Seven ways to stay focussed in a noisy workplace

THE STAR/DPA – Many people have returned to their office after months of working from home during the pandemic.

While some are thrilled to no longer be juggling job, homeschooling and childcare, others quickly chafe at familiar distractions from co-workers, be it the clacking keyboards, nearby conversations or even someone biting noisily into an apple.

The employer is ultimately responsible for keeping the workplace as quiet as possible, said vice president Dr Anette Wahl-Wachendorf of the Association of German Occupational Physicians (VDBW).

In Germany, for example, workplace guidelines limit the noise level in an office to 55 decibels, which is about as loud as a television set at room volume. But that’s not enough to avoid distraction entirely, and soundproof partitions and flooring can help. And if a co-worker’s computer keyboard is too loud or desk chair annoyingly squeaky, you can ask the boss to have them replaced – or to have you moved to a quieter place in the office.

Here are seven ways office workers can stay focussed without ruffling feathers.

EXPLAIN YOURSELF

Before you retire to a quiet area of the office so as not to be disturbed, let your co-workers know why you’re avoiding contact. “To maintain a good working atmosphere, you should briefly explain your self-isolation,” said Wahl-Wachendorf.

SCHEDULE A QUIET TIME

You could have “quiet time” every morning from eight to nine to check your e-mails, for example. “To forewarn co-workers, you could hang a ‘Please Don’t Disturb!’ sign on your office door, as in a hotel, or put one on your desk,” suggested Maike Sauermann from Germany’s Institute for Occupational Health Consulting (IFBG).

Another way to carve out quiet time at work is with so-called contact cards. You can write down your working hours – and when you don’t want to be disturbed – on a card and pin it to a pinboard. Or you could post the times on the company Intranet. Be sure to note your free blocks of time as well.

ESTABLISH WHISPER ZONES

Whisper zones can also make for a quieter working environment, Wahl-Wachendorf said. A whisper-only policy makes especially good sense in an open-plan office or in open-space areas where a lot of people work in close proximity. Depending on the floor plan, certain rooms could be used for long phone calls and video conferences.

TAKE BREAKS

It’s not only important to take breaks, emphasised Wahl-Wachendorf, but also necessary that you use them effectively. “Simply relaxing is more refreshing than listening to music or chatting on the phone,” she said.

For a break to have the greatest recuperative effect, Sauermann said it should be taken someplace other than the noisy room you work in.

MAKE USE OF FLEXIBILITY

The pandemic has made many employers more flexible when it comes to working hours and location. Take advantage of it, advised Sauermann. If you can concentrate better with fewer people around, maybe you can skirt core time in favour of early morning or evening hours. Or perhaps you could go back to working from home, assuming it’s quieter there.

PUT ON HEADPHONES

Headphones – both the noise-cancelling variety and the kind used for listening to music – can be a big help, according to Wahl-Wachendorf. As for the latter, “you should like what you’re listening to and it shouldn’t be too loud (and audible to others)”, she said.

Sauermann, on the other hand, doesn’t think much of listening to music while working, arguing it diverts valuable resources from the brain’s limited cognitive capacity and makes it harder to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing.

DO CONCENTRATION EXERCISES

One such exercise, Sauermann said, involves choosing a word that to your mind radiates calm, for instance “sun” or “wave”. You repeat this word either aloud or in thought. To intensify the calming effect, you can rest your hand on your abdomen, for instance.

Similarly, you can conjure up a tranquil picture in your mind, such as an isolated beach on a tropical island, imagining all the sights, sounds and smells. “By doing this, you escape the surrounding noise for a little while,” remarked Sauermann.

Wahl-Wachendorf recommended trying to block out all negative thoughts. You can waste energy by getting worked up over a noisy working environment, she said, but it won’t help you to concentrate better. “It’s better to expend your energy on letting the ambient noise wash past you. It’s something that can be learned.”

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