Tanya Parker’s office can be an irritating place to work.
The London-based creative agency is an open office layout for around 60 people. With no cubicle dividers, noise echoes around the cavernous space as there’s little barrier to the sounds of colleagues chatting in the kitchen or laughing at their desks.
Parker, 26, an editor, needs quiet to concentrate. But, she sits at a workspace, shared by five others, near a lift that juts out from the wall. There’s a mere sliver of air between her elbow and her neighbour’s phone. Yet, among all the potential annoyances in such a setting, the one thing that can shatter her nerves is the clacking sound of high heels on the metallic floor.
“It’s a big expansive type of office, so it echoes,” says Parker. “When [people in high heels] have to walk past my desk, it infuriates me.”
There are, at times, biological reasons why open office noise can be so particularly irritating
But even when her annoyance reaches a peak, “there’s not much you can do in a professional setting,” she says. “Ideally, I would love to throw something.” Instead, she removes herself from the environment by going for a walk to her favourite coffee shop or even to the bathroom for a few moments of quiet repose.
Anyone who has worked in an open office or shared a confined space with colleagues knows ambient sounds become synonymous with stress. But there are, at times, biological reasons why open office noise can be so particularly irritating.
A Cornell University study of 40 clerical workers who were exposed to open office noises showed that the sounds increased epinephrine levels, the trigger for the body’s fight-or-flight response. The crunch of an apple, the bark of laughter or sounds of sniffling and coughing can activate feelings of anger or irritation among employees, ruining productivity and creating resentment.
There are also specific conditions that are made worse by the constant noise and close proximity of the open office. One such example is misophonia, a high sensitivity to sound that causes anger. It’s more than just a dislike for unappealing noises – those with the condition have an outsize reaction to certain trigger sounds, which can include breathing, eating and rustling.
The onus is on employees to find solutions to the office sounds or lack of privacy
Noisy workplaces have, in part, led to over one-third of workers feeling disengaged, according to a 2016 Steelcase study across 17 countries. But since many office workers worldwide already use open-plan or shared office spaces, organisations can’t easily shift or respond to employees’ concerns. Instead, the onus is on employees to find solutions to office sounds or lack of privacy.
Your bosses might not help
It’s no secret that employees, on the whole, hate the open office. In a 2016 study by economic consultants Oxford Economics found that workers, above all else, wanted a workplace free of distractions. But of all the considerations management weighed when designing offices, noise came in at the bottom and privacy was just above it, the study showed. Worse, two-thirds of executives surveyed believed their employees were equipped with resources to deal with the distractions, even though fewer than half of employees agreed.
Of all the considerations management weighed when designing offices, noise came in at the bottom
In reality, the workers are often right. The middle manager or someone from human resources can’t change the layout of the organisation without a commitment from the company. Instead, “it’s on you and your colleagues” to limit the noise and work together to reduce distractions, says human resources consultant Laurie Ruettimann, based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, in the US. Your boss can’t micromanage it away.
It’s why the solution for these annoyances is often noise-cancelling headphones, which can temporarily solve the auditory intrusion. But even then, visual stimulus, whether it’s from clutter on your small desk or Sam from accounting shuffling across the floor, will also make it more difficult to focus and process information, according to 2011 study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute.
For those with a more severe condition, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Shadee Hardy, a therapist based in Portland, Oregon, suggests getting a note from a doctor, like an audiologist. It can force the company to either offer a quieter spot or provide work-from-home days.
It’s the small things that often make other people tick
It’s also a communal fix. The more people are aware of the sounds that bother others, the more likely that they will shift habits. Maria Nokkenen, 35, a Finnish native who moved to Germany last year to work at a sporting goods company where she shares a room with three others, has come to realise she often exhales very loudly. It’s due to a breathing exercise she learned in yoga. While she’s unsure if her co-workers find this twitch annoying, she says she plans to ask.
After all, Nokkenen notes, “it’s the small things that often make other people tick.”
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