When pollsters give professionals a chance to open up about the things that most distract them at work, there's no shortage of suggestions. From endless email notifications and social media alerts to smelly snacks and kitten videos, the list of interruptions just waiting to break up your flow is long.

But according to Alan Hedge, a workplace design expert at Cornell, one office distraction stands head and shoulders above the rest in its ability to kill our concentration: other people.

Hell is other people.

Speaking to NPR recently (hat tip to Science of Us), Hedge confirmed what many of us have long suspected: Sartre was right that hell is other people, specifically your co-workers and their weird, loud habits. In fact, a whopping 74 percent of workers say they face "many" disturbances from noisy colleagues, Hodge reports.

And that's not just because your deskmate's endless foot tapping or loud phone call making is genuinely maddening (though that may very well be true). The problem, Hedge explains, is that the human brain is wired in such a way as to make ignoring our noisy co-workers nearly impossible.

"In general, if it's coming from another person, it's much more disturbing than when it's coming from a machine," he told Morning Edition. The increasing popularity of open plan offices, of course, only makes the problem worse.

How to talk to your colleagues about the issue

It's clearly impossible to rid your office of noisy co-workers (though working elsewhere when you have concentrated solo work to get through might not be a bad idea), so given the fact that your co-workers are going to keeping crunching, coughing, and chatting away, what should you do about it?

Hedge offers a few simple design-based tips for minimizing distractions, such as adding sound-absorbing carpets and drapes to your office. "Perhaps counterintuitively, getting rid of cubicle walls, which provide the illusion of sound privacy, but actually make people less aware of the noises they create," is a good idea too, he also tells NPR.

But if you're not in a position to redecorate your office, there's one more step you can take to quieten things down a little. You can ask your colleagues to please stop all their yakking. It's even possible to do this without angering anyone, insists Business Insider's Jacquelyn Smith.

She spoke with Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, who offered a clever way of handling a potentially awkward conversation. First, choose a friendly setting for the chat, such as over lunch. Then, try this, Taylor suggests:

"Hey, I need your advice on something. I know it can be challenging working in such close quarters. Is there anything I can do to improve your work experience being that we work so close by each other? Do I tap my pen or slam my cabinet? You never know until you ask!" Then, await a response before bringing up the issue.

If that fails, Smith suggests a number of backup plans, such as instituting an office-wide conversation about excessive noise. Check out her post if all the interruptions are starting to threaten your sanity.

Published on: Nov 4, 2016
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