Girl, interrupted

Dear Diary... I got interrupted again today, and it wasn’t by hot co-worker guy.

For an extended period of time I’ve had concerns about my productivity. Is it OK to talk about it? You bet your work place mental health it is. There’s a 36% chance I’m not alone in feeling like this so in the interest of solidarity and looking for solutions, I’m ripping the plaster off.

Kind of in the same way I remember that one really good time I had eating KFC, I cast my mind back over the last 4 weeks and reflect on the handful of moments where I felt truly productive and in a good workflow.  They’ve been fleeting and few.

Psychologists (me) are calling it ‘open plan WTF’. I definitely have it and it’s reached a level where I feel like I’m wearing my central nervous system like a wet-suit that’s seven sizes too small, I’ve had to put it on without talcum powder, and now that I’ve finally got it on I need to go to the toilet.

For about 8 hours a day I am stopped, I am collaborated at and I have to listen, and not in the good Vanilla Ice way. The result is the unrelenting cycle below.

CycleMy teeth hurt and I’m so frustrated I can see noise!

These are my pain points:

  1. Noise
  2. Interruption or non-consensual collaboration
  • Noise

Noise is possibly one of the biggest stresses in the workplace today. In a workspace, noise pollution is generally a problem once the noise level is greater than 55 dB(A). Selected studies show that approximately 35% to 40% of office workers find noise levels from 55 to 60 dB (A) extremely irritating. The noise standard for mentally stressful tasks is set at 55 dB(A),however if the noise source is continuous, the threshold level for tolerability among office workers is lower than 55 dB(A). That’s a bit cool and sciencey and also sourced from Wikipedia.

There’s some serious truth in it. According to an app we’ve downloaded, the noise level in our workplace consistently sits above 65 dB(A) with spikes of over 87 dB(A) at times. Decibel App

Open plan workspaces have borrowed heavily from cafe culture and tried to bring those social dynamics into the workplace. Howev’s! It’s important that we acquaint ourselves with the following statistics about cafes:

  • 72% of crimes are planned in cafes because the noise level sits consistently above 65 dB(A)
  • 93% of parents threaten to pull the heads off their children’s My Little Ponies in cafe environments because the noise level sits consistently above 65 dB(A)
  • 82% of conversations being had by people in suits or corporate-y attire are someone being made redundant or receiving some form of disciplinary action because the noise level sits consistently above 65 dB(A)
  • 100% of stock imagery showing people ‘working’ on a laptop in a cafe are misleading because the noise level sits consistently above 65 dB(A)

Statistics sourced from but what I’m saying is that if we really looked into it properly with qualified acousticians it’s possible that our workplace happiness is being undermined by noise pollution.

The final incontrovertible factoid on this point is, my colleague wears headphones to baffle some of the noise but what most people don’t know is that he is also wearing industrial ear plugs under those headphones. This speaks VOLUMES about the noise level challenges we are addressing in our own workspace.

  • Interruption

Of what I’m doing, of conversations I’m in the middle of, of my cycle of breathing and… sorry, someone just wanted to talk to me about this seasons knitwear styles so this sentence will never be finished.

We work better on our own but we are more innovative collectively. Two ideas together become one really good idea and all that. But I think collaboration (interruption) requires consent, and needs to take place when all parties are present and warmed up to the idea.
Let’s collaborate when we’re both into it, EVERYTHING that involves two people working together to achieve a lovely result works best that way.

If I’m interrupted to collaborate, it’s 100% likely that I’ve fantasised about you getting kicked in the shins or standing on some Lego and then I might think about the digestive benefits of bone broth and how much your behaviour reminds me of my 4 year old.

We’ve stopped building walls and we’re removed barriers and this has delivered tangible benefits to our workplaces; and real talk, who wants to be the industry pariah that screams from the top of their height adjustable workstation “OPEN PLAN IS A JERK”.

Walls gave people something to knock on, and in that moment before knocking they had to decide if what they wanted to discuss was really worth disturbing someone over. I don’t want the walls to grow back because they weaken workplace culture and set us back too many years.

What I want, is to identify what mechanisms we can use in place of the knock so that people stop trying to touch each other’s productivity inappropriately.

Our etiquette and behaviours haven’t evolved in concurrence with the changes we’ve made to the way we work. It’s OK to address it and it’s necessary, and kind, to support people as they navigate their way through these new environments.

We are sitting (or standing) in the wild ready to be preyed upon by someone wanting to talk about how they accidentally signed up to Lightbox, Netflix and Neon and now have too much good TV to watch and how they have two cats and one night both of them tried to sit on their lap at the same time. DECEASED!

It’s really important not to confuse this with people lacking the capacity to play well with others. It’s a cool part of being a grown up, we get to decide how we manage things for ourselves and we ultimately show up to a work place to work, and we need to be able to achieve some satisfaction in doing that.

I have tried to adapt my behaviour, in that moment of interruption I make a conscious decision to ground myself and be present for the conversation. I make eye contact and listen actively and try to ignore the clanging bells of deadlines, workflow and job satisfaction that are going off somewhere in my cerebrum.


Girl, interruptedWhat to do? We need to design inclusively and consider the sensory requirements of our cognitively diverse workforce. We can also focus on educating users how to confidently utilise their work space. It should be intuitive but sometimes it isn’t.

We know there are some obvious things to include into office design to help reduce the effect of noise and disruption:

  • Provide dedicated spaces for quiet
  • Provide dedicated spaces for noise
  • Promote workplace protocols around telephone calls, conversations
  • Get to know your colleague’s focussed body language – they’ll love you for it
  • Have agreed “do not disturb” mechanisms e.g. headphones. Identify them and as part of your business culture, respect them
  • Mask sound with background noise – it sounds counter intuitive but there’s science to support it
  • Use sound absorbing materials – mix up where you place them, ceilings, walls and on furniture
  • Be in charge of the things you can control. Don’t answer calls at certain times. Shut off emails. Develop resting focussed face or just flat out ignore people

The workplace is all about choice now, where you work, how you work and when you work. We design and build environments that give people these choices. There is a common theme in all of this though and it is “Work”. We still show up to work to ummmm, work! And the space needs to be set-up to allow people to achieve that.

I’m just a girl, sitting in front of a computer, trying to do some work.

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