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What's More Distracting Than A Noisy Co-Worker? Turns Out, Not Much

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Sounds, particularly those made by other humans, rank as the No. 1 distraction in the workplace. According to workplace design expert Alan Hedge at Cornell, 74 percent of workers say they face "many" instances of disturbances and distractions from noise.

"In general, if it's coming from another person, it's much more disturbing than when it's coming from a machine," he says, because, as social beings, humans are attuned to man-made sounds. He says overheard conversations, as well as high-pitched and intermittent noises, also draw attention away from tasks at hand.

The popularity of open offices has exacerbated the problem. The University of California's Center for the Built Environment has a study showing workers are happier when they are in enclosed offices and less likely to take sick days.

This does not bode well for some workers facing cold and flu season, when hacking coughs make the rounds. But some people, such as Milwaukee Web developer Taj Shahrani, contend with it year-round.

He had a colleague who sat a short cubicle wall away and would, as he says, "shout-cough" at regular intervals.

"He never covered his mouth," he says. The violent episodes, which Shahrani and another colleague kept tallies of, would shake his desk and interrupt conversations and phone calls.

"I would always know when it was coming because you would hear that sharp intake, like he's about to cough, and you'd always wince and stop what you're doing because you knew it was going to be sort of loud and hard to hear," Shahrani says.

After months of this, he went from concern about contagion to irritation about the interruptions. Still, he never broached the subject with the offender or the boss.

"It's sort of taboo to criticize someone for an illness," Shahrani says. It's only months later, when he was moved to a new desk in an office reshuffling, that he realized just how much more work he accomplished without constant interruption.

Rue Dooley, an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, says HR professionals often call in, asking how to manage co-worker complaints about various bodily noises.

The answer? It depends on the circumstance. For example, in a previous job, Dooley shared an office with a man who liked to eat frozen carrots and had the hacking cough of someone with chronic bronchitis.

Dooley says he found the carrot-munching funny. The coughing was less amusing, he says. While employers worry about contagion and lost productivity of someone bringing an illness to work, they also have a legal obligation to accommodate employees who have an illness or a disability. He says by law, employers have to accommodate them.

What those accommodations are might vary. A waitress or shop clerk with a hacking cough might require a sick day or a reassignment, in which case Dooley says it's OK for a manager to say: "That cough is turning customers away. We can't have you on the floor with that."

There are other noises that fall into that indelicate in-between territory — like flatulence.

Four years ago, the Social Security Administration reprimanded a worker for his "excessive flatulence." After numerous complaints and warnings, the agency charged him with "conduct unbecoming a federal employee." The employee claimed he had lactose intolerance, and after his union intervened, the reprimand was rescinded.

Then there is the gross interruption that is totally preventable.

Denver electrical engineer Kendra Lyons sits a few cubicles down from an unfiltered loud talker whose phone conversations include details about her gynecology and family disputes.

"It would throw me off, and then I would find it really hard to tune out and not listen to her for the rest of the conversation, so I would end up eavesdropping rather than doing my work," Lyons says.

Now, she says she drowns it out with headphones blasting electronica or the Hamilton soundtrack — anything with a strong beat.

There are solutions, says Cornell's Hedge. The trend toward open offices and hard office furniture makes noise distraction worse, so adding carpet, drapes and upholstery can help. He recommends, 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.