there’s a white noise war in my office — Ask a Manager
A reader writes:
When my company mandated a return to in-office work, I did not expect the biggest problem to be the office noise machine. But hear me out.
During the pandemic, my company installed a Bose speaker system in the ceilings of our large open office to play white noise (actually brown noise, which is supposed to be more soothing). Sounds great, right?
Everyone is bothered to some degree, but I seem to be unusually sensitive to it. It’s triggering a mix of anxiety, irritation and just …hyperarousal? Like it’s going straight to my amygdala. I don’t (didn’t?) have misophonia. The effect builds over time, and volume/proximity matter.
There are control knobs in each section of the office with settings from 1 to 10. At 8, it’s extremely disruptive to everyone in my area. You have to raise your voice to have a conversation. At 6, people 15 feet from the speaker complain. At 4, I don’t notice it if I keep my own headphones on, but it still affects me — the first day on that setting, I didn’t realize what was happening until I went outside and my mood abruptly (eerily) improved. At 3, I’m tense and feel mentally wrung out at the end of the day, but within a more normal scale. (It may be my real reaction to being in the office again.)
When coworkers showed me the controls, they warned me not to turn it down too far, lest the company president insist it be set to 9.
Her office is in a different speaker zone, but it’s her pet project — and an emotional hot button. During the lockdown, one of the remaining in-office staff got into a long conflict with the prez before eventually being fired. The noise volume was the focus. Feelings were hurt, and positions became entrenched.
Every night (and whenever the prez passes by), the volume is turned to 8. Every morning, we turn it down, hoping not to go too far. My neighbor brought it up with our manager and was told we shouldn’t be touching the knob.
The speaker is above my head. I need to stick this out until I find a new job.
Is there any effective way to improve things? Maybe something is wrong with the sound balance or this is some infrasound effect, and an audio-savvy reader knows a way to frame it as a technical glitch and fix it?
Good lord. If the company president wants white noise while she works, she can play white noise in her own office — not inflict it on everyone who’s stuck in an open office, when people have made it clear they hate it.
I can’t speak to the technical parts of this question (readers who can are welcome to!) but I’m going to assume for the sake of this answer that the speaker is functioning the way it’s supposed to.
You’ve got two different options.
The first, and possibly the most effective, is to band together as a group to address this. One person battling it out with the president isn’t the way to go — someone got fired after doing that! — but there’s safety and power in numbers. If a large group of you point out that you can’t easily hear each other and it’s making a lot of you tense and uncomfortable (and affecting your mental health, if that seems true), it’s possible you’ll get some traction. If you have HR, that’s where your group should start. If you don’t, talk to whoever manages the physical space or look for someone who works closely with the president and has the ability to get things done. If that doesn’t work, you’ll at least have protection of having spoken as a group — as opposed to one person trying to fight the battle alone.
The other option is to approach it as a health issue and ask for a medical accommodation. The Americans with Disabilities Act probably isn’t in play here, but you can use the same basic framing for requesting a medical accommodation. In fact, you might even talk to your doctor and see if they’re able to write something official for you, given the effect it’s having on you. (I don’t know the right medical language to use to describe that effect, but your doctor probably will.) Your requested accommodation could be anything from moving you to a quieter space or further away from the speaker, to setting up a speaker-free zone for you and others who need it, to getting rid of the white noise altogether (that would be logical, although who knows how much your president will dig in her heels), to letting you work from home if that’s feasible for your job.
To be clear, employers aren’t required to provide the specific accommodation a doctor says you need — and if the ADA isn’t in play, they’re not required to accommodate you at all — but most employers will try to work with you when they can. It’s at least worth a try.
If none of that works, all you’re really left with is the hope that someone in your office (not you, of course) will eventually be driven to destroy the speakers.
I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.