The New Habit Challenge: Can The Right Kind Of Music Fix Open Office Distraction?

This week we’ll don our headphones and pipe in some ambient tunes for better productivity.

The New Habit Challenge: Can The Right Kind Of Music Fix Open Office Distraction?
[Photo: Flickr user Ludo Rouchy]

The open office debate has been widely chronicled here at Fast Company, and one of the major issues we have with this floor plan that we’ve yet to overcome is how distracting the whole arrangement can be. Apart from the times that you want to collaborate with those around you, this no walls atmosphere is just not conducive to focused work.


In fact, recent survey data from Cambridge Sound Management reveals that nearly 30% of office workers are distracted by coworkers’s conversations.

But noise in general isn’t to blame when it comes to lost productivity. “When we talk about distractions, what we’re primarily concerned with is intelligibility,” says acoustical expert Justin Stout. In other words, what’s distracting about our neighbors’ conversations is that our focus shifts from our work to figuring out what they are saying.

Since shutting your office door is no longer an option, Stout says that the key to enhancing productivity is consistently generating an office “hum”—the unintelligible mixture of sounds.

Stout recommends accomplishing this by listening to music without lyrics, such as classical or electronic music. “The cognitive processes that are needed to understand and interpret lyrics are very different than the processes required to simply listen to rhythms,” he explains.

While I already don headphones to tune out distractions in my own open office, most of my musical choices include lyrics. So for the next week when I want to accomplish focused work I’ll funnel some lyric-less tunes into my ears. I hope you’ll join me.

We’ll be chatting live on Friday, January 30 at 11 a.m. ET about tuning out conversations and lyrics and possibly breaking the open office curse; join us to find out how it went and share your thoughts. Or send an email with what your thoughts on this challenge to by end of day Thursday, January 29.

About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on,, and elsewhere.