Feeling Unproductive? Blame Talkative Co-workers, the No. 1 Office Distraction

Noisy neighbors are the biggest disruption at work, according to a recent survey from talent mobility consultants Lee Hecht Harrison. Forty-five percent of respondents to an online poll said that talkative co-workers was the most distracting element at the office.

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(Photo Credit: Russland and Ukraine/Flickr)

For comparison, the other top complaints were:

  • Emails (18 percent)
  • Odors (9 percent)
  • Telephone calls (8 percent)
  • Ambient noise (6 percent)
  • Office design (5 percent)

"We are social creatures and our success in the workplace depends on our ability to communicate," says Jim Greenway, Executive Vice President for Marketing and Sales Effectiveness at Lee Hecht Harrison, in a press release. "Serendipitous conversations in the hallway or brief stops by a coworker's office or cubicle for some chit-chat can yield tremendous benefits in terms of collaboration, generating new ideas, creating trust and increasing productivity. However, too much talk can also be a distraction as our survey found."

These "serendipitous conversations" are much-cited by decision makers, like Yahoo's Marisa Mayer, who want their workers toiling away in the physical office, instead of logging in from home.

The problem, of course, is that most offices these days offer a lot more room for conversation than privacy.

Open Plan Offices Mean Every Conversation Is a Shared Conversation

About 70 percent of American workers now work in open-plan offices, according to the International Management Facility Association. While open offices save companies in terms real estate costs and offer the aforementioned opportunities for improved collaboration, they're tough on introverts, independent workers, or anyone who just needs five minutes of quiet working time. It's not a coincidence that many of the other complaints on the list -- from odors to ambient noise -- also stem from a work environment that requires close contact between colleagues.

The first part of the solution is consideration, Greenway says.

"Developing self-awareness is key to taking responsibility. Is the person you're speaking with tapping their fingers impatiently? Glancing at their watch? Looking distressed? If so, adjust your behavior and wrap up your conversation immediately. Remember, leave your audience wanting more, not looking for an escape route."

If you're the person who wants to escape, not the person inspiring her co-workers to start making rope ladders and looking for windows that open, your options are slightly more limited. The old standbys work fairly well: headphones, with music or white noise as needed, and work sessions in a conference room, if your office has enough to go around.

Other than that, your best bet might be to negotiate with your manager for at least a little work-at-home time, or maybe the option to work earlier or later than the rest of the team. If you can stomach getting up with the roosters, for example, you might carve out a little quiet time, while your co-workers are still asleep.

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