5 Tips for Battling Cubicle Distractions

Ever since the cubicle was invented, office workers have dealt with the distractions that go along with a workplace devoid of privacy. Sights, sounds and smells that would be private in a hard-walled office become everyone’s business in a cubicle officescape. Coping with life inside a cubicle can be difficult.

Going hand in hand with the lack of privacy is a lack of productivity induced by constant distractions. Anyone who has worked in a cubicle for more than a day can fess up to listening to someone else’s entire phone conversation. And there is a good chance nosiness wasn’t to blame. A conversation on the other side of the flimsy partition doesn’t even have to be interesting to pull those nearby out of their work. The reaction is natural.

So what are you to do in an environment constantly pulling your attention away from what you are supposed to be doing? Try these tips to keep office distractions at bay. 

Invest in some noise-canceling headphones.

man with headphones in cubicle
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Offices can be loud and raucous, or they can be quiet as a cemetery. Both can be distracting. Noisy offices can make it hard to concentrate because of all the different things going on. For some, silent offices make it difficult to stay on task.

No matter which camp you’re in, noise-canceling headphones allow you to set the soundtrack to your workday. If you like quiet, they can shut out ringing phones and jabbering co-workers. If you like background music to fend off other sounds, you can have that. If you need some instrumental music because songs with lyrics distract you, download some Kenny G and jam out (well … not jam out … after all, it’s Kenny G).

There are a few drawbacks to noise-canceling headphones. One, you may not hear your phone ring. If your phone has a light to indicate it is ringing -- which most office phones have -- put your phone in your peripheral vision where you will see when the light illuminates. Second, you may not hear the fire alarm. Fortunately, today’s fire alarm system also have flashing lights that are hard to miss no matter where you are on the office floor. Third, you can easily be startled by co-workers coming to visit you. You can try repositioning yourself within the cubicle so that people cannot sneak up on you. 

Book a conference room when you need total silence.

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Think a conference room is only for meetings? Think again.

If you need total silence to work on something, booking a conference room is a perfectly legitimate strategy. You might get some funny looks if you plop down in a conference room with glass walls, but you need to get your work done, so those rubberneckers can just keep on walking.

Now, you can’t make a conference room your permanent office, so use this tactic only when necessary. If you need to do some quality assurance work on some data or screen a stack of job applications, you need uninterrupted silence, and in some workplaces, the only places to get that are conference rooms. 

Work from home when you can.

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Working from home is not an option for some government employees, but for many, telework is an option either on a routine basis or occasionally. . For an employee to telework, the arrangement must fit two things: the employee and the position. This means the employee’s work ethic, style and supervision needs must fit with telework, and the employee’s job duties must be able to be performed remotely.

Working from home allows you to set an environment that works for you. Noise level, temperature and aromas are all under your control. Can you work better at your dining room table than in your cubicle? Do it.

If working from home or some other location is possible, give it a try. You might like it. If you don’t, you can go back to your old way of working.

Keep a close eye on your productivity. If it goes down, you should notice before your boss does, and you should know when to call off the telework experiment. 

Be honest with co-workers.

conversation over cubicle partition
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Your co-workers do not want to be distractions for you. They don’t want you to harbor ill will against them, especially if you haven’t brought an issue to their attention. If your office neighbors do something that distracts you from work, have an honest conversation about what they’re doing. Chances are they don’t realize they’re bothering you, and they’ll want to do whatever they can to minimize your distraction.

Say your co-worker in the next cubicle talks loudly on the phone. Every phone call your co-worker makes or receives pulls you away from your work for the entirety of the conversation. You can’t help listening because of the volume. If you talk to this person, he probably doesn’t realize how loud he is. If you ask him to talk a little softer, most likely he’ll try. You may have to remind him a few times, but as long as you do it nicely, you should not have any major conflict. 

Be honest with your boss.

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Your boss is there to support you and equip you to do your best work. You want to do well, and your boss wants you to do well. If your environment is getting in the way of your getting the job done, your boss is your ally in fixing the issue. Your boss may be limited in what he or she can do, but you’ll never know what can or can’t be done if you don’t discuss it.