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Highly Sensitive People and the Interruptive Workplace

Good News: I have a new manager and increased scope at Dayjob. My job title and description will be adjusted to formally recognize what I've actually been doing for the past three years.

Bad news: New manager wants me in the office "more often". It's the only point on which we disagree. But it's a big point. For some time now, I've been telecommuting three days a week.

Within a month of my starting work at this company (on a temporary "contract"), I asked to telecommute one day a week. When they offered to make the position permanent, I requested permission to telecommute two days a week. That (and a Mac on my desk :-) were my most important negotiating points before saying Yes.

About a year and a half ago, I increased my telecommuting to three days a week. As my commute time and exposure to noise and disruption have gone down, my stress levels have also gone down. The ability to telecommute is one of my top reasons for staying with this company.

Asking me to "be the office more" feels like a punishment for a job well done.

My new manager believes that "face-to-face" communication is better than by telephone. I agree with him there; telephones don't work for me. In fact, I gave my cubicle telephone back to IT; pretty much anything works better for me than a telephone.

But that doesn't mean face-to-face meetings are the best way for me to work most of the time.

Here's the thing. I do most of my work in writing — web pages, IM, email. I've been working this way for many years and I'm good at it. I communicate best in writing. Even when I'm "in the office", I still handle most of my communication through IM or email.

This is not only of value to me. Written communication is self-documenting. Ask me something in a meeting and, unless you take impeccable notes, you may be hard pressed to remember exactly what I said a few days later. But ask me something in IM, and the question and response will both be there, unchanged, tomorrow and a month from now.

I have had many people who were very happy when they realized that they could go back and look at their IM logs (again and again) after I've explained how to use some tricky bit of code.

I'm also very sensitive to interruptions. This matters a lot in a workplace that is, according to Jason Fried, (co-founder of 37signals) optimized for interruptions.

Yeah, my feeling is that the modern workplace is structured completely wrong. It’s really optimized for interruptions. And interruptions are the enemy of work. They are the enemy of productivity, they are the enemy of creativity, they are the enemy of everything. But that’s what the modern workplace is all about, it’s interruptions. Everyone’s calling meetings all the time, everyone’s screaming people’s names across the thing, there’s phones ringing all the time. People are walking around. It’s all about interruptions.

Odd as it may seem, I find that IM and email do not interrupt my workflow nearly as much as sounds, people "walking about", or drop-in visitors. I can bounce easily between multiple applications on my computer, but a small noise is a major distraction.

My manager at a previous company had this to say in my annual review:

Vicki works best when she can interact with a team and then be sequestered to do her writing, coming back for review or more input as necessary. She has a difficult and complicated time blending into the work environment and is very sensitive to physical factors such as noise. However, as much as these peculiarities make her not fit into a team, she overcomes them by being genuine, helpful, responsive, and productive.

In the past year, I've learned that my "peculiarities" are not that unusual. In fact, there's a term for people like me. We're HSPs, Highly Sensitive People.

According to Elaine Aron, who began researching high sensitivity in 1991, the trait is "found in 15 to 20% of the population -- too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you." I guess, that explains my previous manager's comments.

Some of the traits of HSPs include

  • a heightened awareness of subtleties in the environment, such as sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell
  • conscientious, hard working, and meticulous
  • may become uncomfortable and less efficient or productive when being watched or scrutinized
  • more easily overwhelmed
  • asks lots of questions
  • doesn't do well with big changes
  • affected by other people's moods
  • make it a high priority to arrange life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations

HSPs are unlikely to perform well in the busy, chaotic, noisy, environment of the typical cubicle farm.

I found an entertaining essay by Roger Johansson, a web developer who finds it "really hard to concentrate on tasks that require logical thinking when there is a lot of other things going on in the same room". Roger does a great job of describing the sources of noise in the office.

His essay so closely matches my own experience that I feel that he must work nearby! My workplace even has the TVs; the only thing missing is the radios. (Shhhhh. Don't tempt Fate.)

Roger's list includes:

  • Phones ringing, and ringing, and ringing. By the way – whoever invented ringtone melodies for mobile phones, I’d like to have a word with you in private.
  • People yelling to each other from one end of the office to the other instead of moving closer so they can talk.
  • People talking on the phone in a voice loud enough to almost make the phone unnecessary. The same people also have a tendency to walk around the office while shouting into their phone, making sure everybody knows how important they think they are.
  • People running back and forth, stomping on the floor with their hard-heeled shoes. Depending on how your office building is constructed, you may also feel the floor vibrate from their steps. I do.
  • TVs blaring out news, commercials, sports, whatever. Why is it that people cannot turn down the volume when they have finished watching something?
  • Commercial radio playing the latest Britney-pop crap.
  • Children. Don’t ever bring your children to your office during working hours unless you really have no other option.

I can especially relate to the people running back and forth, along with the vibrating, bouncy floor.

To Roger's list, I'll add

  • In-cube conference calls. Get a room!
  • In-cube speaker phones. Seriously, IT departments, WHY do you install these? What on earth were you thinking?!
  • Meeting attendees who fail to close the door to the room.
  • Ad-hoc hallway meetings. (Again, get a room.)
  • People who are "on call" but leave their phone/pager on their desks to ring, stop, ring, stop, ring stop... (Even if it's set on vibrate, did you know that makes the whole desk surface buzzzzzzz?)
  • Frequent throat clearing, muttering, or self-talk. I once had a co-worker who would repeat "Hmmm. Mmmhm!" over and over as he wrote code.
  • The weird and unusual you'd never think of. There's a guy nearby at my current workplace who shakes a salad in a plastic box every day at lunch time.

Unfortunately, Roger's solution (noise-canceling headphones and good music) don't work well for me over time. Headphones eventually give me a headache. In-ear phones and ear plugs make my head feel stuffy. And, sadly, good music is more of a distraction than a help, particularly if it's something I know well and could hum. (No, I do not hum out loud).

So, my solution is to get away from it all and telecommute as much as possible. When I telecommute I have:

  • no cell phones
  • no hallway or cube-to-cube conversations
  • very few co-workers (my spouse has his own office and the cats mostly sleep)
  • an environment that I can control
  • lower stress

I also save, at minimum, an hour and a half round trip commute each day. Plus, at home I have cats — proven stress reducers in their own right.

I get more done, with much less distraction and stress, when I don't have to commute to the "office" and sit in a cubicle... just in case someone might want to meet with me.

For the time being, my new manager and I have compromised on my being in the office three days a week. We'll revisit the situation in a month, and again a month after that. In the meantime, I intend to log every interruption, disruption, and distraction I notice while I'm onsite in cube land. It's not difficult to notice these, so the added consideration of jotting down a note should be minor.

We'll see how "being in the office more" looks in a month.


Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person — Includes a general list of traits, a self-test, and links to books and other materials.

Jim Hallowes' Highly Sensitive People — Includes a general list of traits and additional resource material.

Interview with Jason Fried, Feb 2010, "Why You Can't Work at Work"

"Coping with noise in the workplace", Roger Johansson

November 13, 2010 in category Career Center, Productivity | Permalink


I understand the difficulties in the workplace and the lack of compassion from our fellow non-HSP co-workers. We must do what we can to cope and deal with these issues as best as we can. I wish more companies would open up to the idea of work at home, that would be ideal.
My two cents

Posted by: Dee at Oct 24, 2011 11:05:30 AM

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