Ask LH: How Can I Stop Pointless Chit Chat In My Workplace?

Dear Lifehacker, I work in an open plan office doing marketing. I love my job, but I get interrupted a lot and it's usually just mindless chit-chat. I don't take well to interruptions and have snapped a number of times. (Our CEO doesn't believe in working from home so I'm basically stuck.) Are there any coping strategies you can suggest? Thanks, April

Image: BBC

Dear April,

There's no excuse for rudeness in the workplace. Sure, chatter-box colleagues can be annoying but acting snappy is not the solution. While this may eliminate casual chit-chat, it will also make you the office jerk who everyone secretly bad-mouths.

Even if you don't care about being liked, having a reputation for being "difficult" can have an adverse affect on your career. Managers generally don't promote people who are openly hostile to the rest of the team. So stop snapping!

With that said, we do sympathise with your plight. Open plan offices are great in some respects, but they do encourage people to wander around and socialise during downtime, which obviously isn't ideal when you have a personal deadline. Indeed, a recent study found that private workspaces tend to yield higher productivity out of employees than open layouts.

So what can you do about it? One possible solution is to don a large pair of headphones. When your eardrums are visibly occupied, people are a lot less inclined to try and get your attention unless it's for something important. This should help to cut down on the casual conversations that keep distracting you from your work.

In addition to acting as a conversational barrier, your headphones will also blot out the chattering of nearby colleagues. If you don't like listening to music while working, try white noise, ambient sounds or use noise-cancelling headphones and keep them muted.

Otherwise, the best approach is to (politely) explain you are very busy and will catch up with them later. Most people will take the hint and happily leave you alone for the rest of the day.

If any readers have suggestions of their own, let April know in the comments!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    Does your office have small meeting/multi-purpose rooms? These are often factored into predominately open-plan offices for private meetings, appraisals, guests, etc. While you can't just stake one as a personal office, you may be able to book time there when necessary to help progress important projects.

    Thereafter, you might try reaching an informal contract with your colleagues to have certain hours ring-fenced. For example, "Please leave me alone between 9 and 11 unless an absolute emergency". Which could even be reinforced by a polite but direct Do Not Disturb sign.

    If nothing else seems to be working and you feel your productivity is suffering, then speak to your line manager. It's their responsibility to ensure you have a conducive working environment. Especially if it could hit the company's bottom line.

      Thanks! We do have small meeting rooms. I've used them in the past when I've had things I could do on my personal Chromebook (we don't have work laptops and I don't have access to the shared drives on the Chromebook). I should see about doing that more often!

      I love the idea of a DND sign! One of the managers here has one and it works very well.

      Thanks again :)

    Headphones work well, but there's always the persistent types. I've tried a few things but the one that I've had the most success with: I gently raise my hand to a "stop" hand signal like I'm in the middle of listening to something important. Most people feel bad for having "interrupted" me and walk off straight away. They rarely try again. This obviously works best if they can't see your screen. You need comfy headphones though :)

      100% for sure.
      I always wear headphones when im on my way to work, even if its not plugged in people will generally see the headphones and just wave to you in passing instead, you also get very good at lip reading (or just assuming thats what they said lol ).
      Just need to figure out how to stop the street walkers from talking to me, they either pull my headphones out or jab me to scab money and smokes, grrrr...

    Thanks LH!

    My boss "prefers" that we don't wear headphones, but I think I could get away with it if I explain to him beforehand why I am doing it.

    I do try not to snap! When I get in the zone (with design work and writing) the best way I can describe the interruption is like being woken from a deep sleep. And just as hard to get back into!

    Thanks all for the comments, too!

      Have a look at stuff from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about "flow theory".

      The problem that's occurring is that context switching is quite exhausting and it can take 30-40 minutes to get back into the groove after someone interrupts you.

      I got in a heap of trouble at a previous place of employment due to trying to stay in the flow; I had some really tight deadlines to get some technical work done and it required steady concentration for multiple hours. I asked my colleagues not to disturb me, and the ones I sat near were fine with that, but then people from elsewhere started interrupting me. I couldn't get a meeting room, so I ended up putting up a little sign saying "please don't disturb, I am in crunch mode". I was then told by my manager that I was being hostile and I wasn't upholding the company values.

      I don't have a solid suggestion for you, beyond what the others have suggested; make sure the boss knows the context, see if you can get a meeting room, but let other staff members know that you are happy to be involved with them, but you need some time to concentrate in order to get certain tasks done.

        Yes!! Yes this is exactly it!

        Thank you for pointing me towards flow theory. I am not (just) a crazy and/or rude person. It has a name! There is research! You are my hero.

        Edit: I did mention in my original request to LH but they edited it out - this is mainly a concern to me when I am coding our website, doing graphic design work, and doing long form writing. Stuff that requires concentration. If people want to tell me what they did on the weekend while I'm sorting emails or answering 5 minute questions then I have no problem with it at all :)

        Last edited 08/07/16 12:07 pm

      Have a look at stuff from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about "flow theory".

      The problem that's occurring is that context switching is quite exhausting and it can take 30-40 minutes to get back into the groove after someone interrupts you.

      I got in a heap of trouble at a previous place of employment due to trying to stay in the flow; I had some really tight deadlines to get some technical work done and it required steady concentration for multiple hours. I asked my colleagues not to disturb me, and the ones I sat near were fine with that, but then people from elsewhere started interrupting me. I couldn't get a meeting room, so I ended up putting up a little sign saying "please don't disturb, I am in crunch mode". I was then told by my manager that I was being hostile and I wasn't upholding the company values.

      I don't have a solid suggestion for you, beyond what the others have suggested; make sure the boss knows the context, see if you can get a meeting room, but let other staff members know that you are happy to be involved with them, but you need some time to concentrate in order to get certain tasks done.

    "Open plan offices are great in some respects"

    Not really.

      They are cheap. Thats the end of it.

      It's not just "a recent study" that shows they are bad for productivity. EVERY study done in the last 20-30 years shows that. Between 4% -16% drop in productivity depending on the type of work being done.
      Tightly focused thought work (e.g. computer programmers) suffer the worst but even e.g. PAs (who's job involves a lot of talking) suffer from open plan. It is generally only senior managers who find an excuse to get away from them.
      The problem is that the people who plan offices, and pay for them, are not the same ones who work in them. And there is little scope for direct comparison (if anyone cared) in most businesses.

        I would definitely agree with that. It' s when I am doing focused thought work (like coding or long form writing) that I suffer the most.

    This will help for sure.

    http://www.compushade.com/demos/FCKeditor/UserFiles/Image/sock2.jpg

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