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Working in an open office? Set rules about noise with your neighbors

Scott Steinberg
By Scott Steinberg

Work Etiquette Columnist

Q: How can you set ground rules about noise with the people who sit next to you? 

Dear Living Loud,

No one wants to listen to colleagues’ conversations with significant others or hear Chris Brown blaring off Spotify at top volume while they’re trying to get some work done. Doubly so in an open office space where the only barriers between peers are mental ones. So if you want to set some boundaries about when it’s appropriate to rock ringtones or howl out loud with laughter? It’s best to get together and define some ground rules as a group.

If informal efforts at setting ground rules fail, talk to senior leaders or an HR rep about setting official guidelines. Alternately, you could help schedule a meeting or set up an anonymous survey that allows others to voice common concerns surrounding office noise.

Some points you might touch on when setting rules include:

  • What voice levels are reasonable for everyday conversation
  • The best location for lengthy conversations to be held if a quick, impromptu chat with others won’t suffice
  • If it’s alright to keep ringers and mail notifications on, or if it’s best to keep them on vibrate
  • When it’s alright to use a speaker for calls or entertainment
  • If it’s alright to pop into someone else’s workspace unannounced
  • How to tell if someone is busy and shouldn’t be interrupted
  • If specific hours are reserved for quiet, focused effort
  • Whether it’s really necessary to shout across a room or better to simply walk over to another desk or send an instant message
  • Types of ambient noise—humming along with tunes, tapping on the desk, playing drum solos using pencils—that may distract others
  • What to do if you overhear something private or personal
  • How to handle noise-related complaints

Put the rules down on paper, and be consistent in your enforcement of them, while also being courteous and respectful of others and situations as they arise.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible.

Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit to Scott by emailing work@qz.com.