ACHIEVING "speech privacy" in open-plan offices is a difficult thing. With the range of voices, volumes and tones, it is difficult to totally ignore the conversations that inevitably break your concentration.
It does not help that the human ear was designed to pick up structured sounds (such as speech or music).
Here are a few tips on how to deal with office noise:
1. Wear headphones
Noise-cancelling headphones are great for this but are often expensive. There are much cheaper (and low-tech) options available. Over-ear (meaning the big ones that cover your ear) or in-ear buds typically block out most interference, and the right music can be just the thing to lower your stress level or help you focus. Music with lyrics tends to be distracting, so this option may not be best for you.
2. Buy a white noise machine
There is a huge range of white noise products to help you achieve speech privacy in your open office. They range from very inexpensive CDs that loop a white noise track to very high-quality, multi-channel products designed to treat entire offices or buildings. The best solution for you will depend in part on how much space you want to treat.
3. Find a quiet space
Most offices have unused conference rooms, and these make great spots when you need to get away from the office banter and do some really focused work.
4. Discuss your concerns
Do this in a meeting with your supervisor and offer constructive suggestions. The creation of a team or office-wide noise management policy can often be quite effective and helpful.
However, avoid using the meeting to vent about your co-workers. This is not the right forum for this, and it may cost you to lose credibility. Remember: you are concerned for the team and are trying to make the work environment more productive and comfortable for all. Complaining can make the situation sound like a personal problem.
5. Share your concerns with the noisy co-worker
This can be difficult, and should obviously be given careful thought before you even ask for a discussion.
Here are some ideas to help avoid an uncomfortable confrontation:
Ask to speak with the noisy co-worker in private and be direct. Don't hint, but be tactful. After all, you do have to continue working with this person. Above all, avoid the "backdoor approach" of making sarcastic comments in front of other team members. Such a passive-aggressive approach generally only offends the noisy co-worker, and in the end, is rarely effective.
Give your noisy co-worker the benefit of the doubt. Many people just have voices that carry and aren't intentionally being loud.
Be willing to meet him or her halfway, by implementing one of the Tips 1 to 3 above. People with naturally loud voices can make significant efforts at lowering their volume or "phone voice" yet still remain a distraction.
Above all, do not just sit there and grit your teeth. There is more to the "tools of the trade" than just a computer and a telephone. Your environment and workspace are part of the equation. Addressing open office speech privacy concerns early can save you a lot of stress.