Cubicle Hell: Dealing with Distractions in an Open-Office Environment

Are you in a cube farm or other open-office environment? If so, you know that no amount of snack machines, sofas, or fancy Herman Miller furniture can make up for the constant noise and interruptions.

For many years I worked on a team of introverts sandwiched between two of my company’s most extroverted teams. Sitting out in the open with lots going on around me made it tough to be productive.

Here are some ways I coped with cubicle hell, and some new methods I’ve discovered since. Hopefully these will help you too.

1. Earplugs are your friend

I invested in some heavy-duty earplugs. They didn’t block noise completely but they definitely took the edge off. Tip: wear earplugs and headphones. The earplugs drown out surrounding chatter but you’ll still be able to hear the music. Try it! And remember, earplugs take a while to get used to, so definitely stick with them for a week or so.

2. Build a social wall with headphones

Besides the obvious benefit of listening to music, headphones say “I’m working don’t bother me”. Wear them even when you’re not listening to music. You’ll find people are less prone to interrupt you for no good reason. I found very visible headphones worked well as a social wall and were best at blocking external sounds.

3. Use calming noises to mask sound

Sometimes listening to music can be too distracting. Fans, desktop water fountains, and listening to flowing water sounds on your headphones are all great ways to take the edge off. Try, a free website that plays the soothing sound of rain.

4. Cancel noise all together

I’ve never tried noise-cancelling headphones, but if I still worked in a cube, I definitely would. They can be very expensive though, so if you can, test them out before buying. Here are some great noise-cancelling headphone reviews from CNET.

5. Draw the line with neighbors

It’s important to be friendly and social in the office but draw the line with overly chatty neighbors. “I have to work right now”, “Talk to you later”, and “OK Bye” are all appropriate responses while you turn your back and get back to work. They may keep talking for a while, but if you don’t interact, they will eventually get the message.

6. Be strategic about seating

If you can control the location of your desk, be strategic. Don’t sit near benches or sofas where people can gather, outside the doors of meeting rooms or with your back to an aisle. All these locations make you a target for interruptions.

7. Work at non-peak times

Do your really crunchy work at the end of the day, early in the morning, or over lunch when people aren’t around. At non-peak times the office is quieter and you’ll naturally get more done. Once in a while I’d work late on a Thursday night so my Friday wouldn’t be so stressful. Then I’d leave early.

8. Work from home

This goes without saying. Try and strike a deal to work one day a week at home. Mid-week is best. Mondays and Fridays are already quiet because people like to take those days off.

9. Beware of the machines

Don’t sit near the coffee maker or the copy machine. The mechanically-challenged will continually ask for your help. If you’re forced to sit near the kitchen or a copier, my condolences. Besides self-medicating on toner fumes, use body language and headphones that say, “I’m working, don’t bug me.”

10. Work in a meeting room

Book out the time and the space in advance, so it’ll pop up on your calendar. Set up your laptop and put a bunch of papers across from you. You’ll have the meeting room to yourself and it’ll look like someone else is in there, so the odds of getting kicked out are reduced.

11. Talk to your boss

Don’t suffer in silence if your office is really noisy. Speak to your boss about it. Mine definitely understood the toll taken by noise and helped plan seating arrangements accordingly. In my case, things could have been much worse.

Have another tip? Feel free to leave them in the comments.

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Janet Martin is a freelance writer and web content specialist. Visit her online at
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  1. Josh Arguello on the 19th July

    I sit right next to someone who can’t handle the noise of the busy office; I hear a lot of heavy, loud sighs all day long…

    I’ve found I need the music/headphones to drown out his sighs more than the ambient noise around me.

  2. Jenn on the 21st July

    Good points., especially #11. Communication in the office is key (as well as headphones). Thanks for the tip of the rain site.

  3. Sound Cancelling Headphones on the 19th May

    By far the best thing I did at work was to invest in a good pair of sound/noise cancelling headphones. I work in a small office so the noise within the office isn’t so much of a concern however or building is next to a freeway so something had to be done!

  4. Steven King on the 25th July

    Without a doubt…the solution I found for distracting noise in the cubicle environment was Flents earplugs + noise cancelling headphones connected to my iPad while playing playing Relaxing Melodies (Ocean, White noise, heavy rain, and ocean waves). This free app allows a beta wave setting of 20Mhz which purports to aid in concentration.

    I will tell you this…until I hooked all this up, I was quite sure I would be looking for another job. With this setup, zero noise intrudes my concentration.

    Feel free to email with questions.

  5. Annoyed on the 13th March

    I sit next to a guy who won’t stop CHOMPING ON LOUD FOOD ALL DAY LONG….I wanna pull my hair out….I am going to try some of these suggestions to see if they help to block him out

    • Pooja Lohana on the 13th March

      Hi Annoyed,

      We feel for you! Sure. Do try some of these tactics and let us know how you go.


  6. OBEX Panel Extenders on the 24th March

    If you’re sitting next to or across from another worker, there’s also the option of increasing the height of the divider between workstations. That’s a good way to block out noise and help you concentrate. I’d recommend using an acoustic panel extender that’s designed to block the transmission of sound. Look for one made of materials with a high STC rating (the closer to 60, the better).


  7. Ellen on the 4th April

    Ask your office manager or facilities manager about using a sound masking system. I work with a system called Spectra from Lencore Acoustics and the feedback I get from clients is that it really works. It will make your co-workers speech unintelligible. The problem with blocking transmission of sound is that sound will still travel up and over – even in a private office. The sound masking raises the background noise so that it masks those conversations that you don’t want to listen to while still being able to focus on your work.

  8. Debbie on the 10th June

    I’m pretty good about being able to tune out those around me exept when I have additional stress. At those times I’ve tried turning up music in my cubicle and that bothered others; I went to headphones and found that I hummed to the music which bothered others. Now I’ve developed a habit of humming, which I don’t realize I’m doing and haven’t been able to stop…now this is bothersome. I’m trying to find a solution to help my co-workers from hearing my humming. Any ideas?

  9. Maxwell Smart on the 23rd July

    I find the cone of silence invaluable to not only keep my conversation psuedo-private but also drown out the picking of teeth, requests for technical help, blocking people just standing there staring at me waiting for me to acknowledge them even while working, chomping on ice, bodily functions, running, stamping, stomping, and despite having graduated from kindergarten people who still don’t know what the inside voice is.

  10. C on the 26th October

    What bothers me most about this is the thought that people think they are as productive with the added noise of music. I have two loud chatting females in the office and it’s like a flipping junior high attitude that comes back to you when you are the one just begging for quiet so that you can work. It is abusive that I have to work my lunch hour and after 5 when their loud mouths go home to get work done. Now added to their loud voices, we have a flipping radio playing and I’m about to scream. I hear walls are coming, but how unfortunate that a company chooses to spend money on walls rather than basically telling these two disrespectful children of 30 and 40+ to grow up and go to work. Talking to my boss is getting me now put in a cage where I won’t hear the actual noise, but worse, loud unidentifiable noises that are going to absolutely drive me insane! There is just no winning here as I sit in an office until midnight most nights doing my work when there is no distractions to it. You would think the employee that is killing herself just to work would pull a little more respect than this.

  11. lousa on the 27th April

    What if headphones and talking to your boss and HR do not work? What if one of the worst offenders is an old timer who thinks the rules do not apply to him and apparently they do not. I have not worked for the company for very long. I am happy except for the fact that I end up working very long hours because I cannot concentrate because of the noise in the office. I am thinking of looking for another job and that is unfortunate because I don’t know how to explain this on my resume. I am afraid it will look bad because I have not worked here for so long. I am not a complainer but I just can’t work like this.

  12. Luke on the 21st September

    In my opinion, open office plans are hard for people. Not everyone, but certainly a lot of people find it a difficult environment to cope with. They tend to be passive aggressive by default, because people tend to be shy and not their true personalities with lots of people sitting around them. That is the main issue with open offices. I actually believe they hold back productivity because you want people to feel relaxed and open to ideas, not stiff, sterile, stressed out, passive, annoyed.

    Now I think the dream office, would be that each team in the office has a divider wall, blocking out the other teams in the open plan office. So you are with your team, if you want to ask questions, you walk into the teams divider to ask them, which blocks you out from the other teams. So not isolated cubicles for people, but isolated cubicles for teams.

    I believe isolated teams are more likely to be productive, they are more likely to speak to each other openly then if it is a complete open plan office where everyone feels exposed to either scrutiny or it means they won’t second guess approaching people for questions. That is important in an office.

    Each team cubicle has ambient/background noise as a choice, but to be encouraged by each team leader. People complain about IBS, stomach noises, gossip, banter, phones ringing all the time, constant conversation, stress. So you want the team office/cubicle to be relaxing, set up for mild background noise whilst encouraging them to work with each other. But they won’t do this in an open plan office unless everyone is outgoing. But everyone isn’t outgoing.

    It is also encouraged that teams put up posters, white boards, stat sheets, to bring some personality to their own cubicle. You don’t want it to be sterile and dull. So do what you want with your desk, as long as it makes you comfortable without annoying others.

    A successful office, to me, is office noise isolated to each team (Each team out of view of the other teams and out of noise range), this allows shy people to feel more comfortable approaching their own team members, also relaxing music playing at the right noise ratio/volume so people can work but that it’s not silent.

    If they want to listen to headphones, fine, as long as they can still hear the telephone.

    Also if possible. An outdoor office area, under a balcony or portable roof set up. Again it’s not common. But I bet people would feel wonderful having the choice to work outside if they want to sit at a desk station in the outdoors to get away for a day.

    A separate office to team offices for people who just want to escape distractions. (if there is enough space to do this).

  13. Luke on the 21st September

    There are probably OH&S issues with the outdoor office idea. But surely there would be ways to make it safe. Something to think about anyway.

    That would take a lot of research and planning, but is an interesting idea.

  14. Luke on the 21st September

    If you’ve ever seen the old UK tv show Press Gang, the show is 20 years old, sort of like that, but with dividers up around those teams and with less distractions. You want teams to be talking and feeling good around each other.

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