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The question

I have a tricky situation at work that I'm not sure how to deal with. I was recently hired to work as a copywriter at an ad agency, along with two other copywriters. All of us were hired within the past few months, so we're obviously doing our best to fit in and avoid stepping on toes. There are a number of art directors, all of whom have been there longer than us, who play music over their computer speakers during the work day, which is incredibly distracting. As writing and art directing use different parts of the brain, it's easy for them to work with the music, but incredibly difficult for writers. The other new staff share my sentiments, but are hesitant to speak up. While I've politely asked on a few occasions that we "take a break" from the music so I can focus on something important, the volume is always back up 30 minutes later.

How do I ask my co-workers to use their headphones to listen to music without sounding like a party pooper, or worse yet, like I'm implying that my job is harder than theirs?

The answer

It's great that you are trying to be polite with the art directors about the music situation in the office, but it sounds like you are the only one speaking up for the copywriters. It also sounds like the art directors are not respecting your request for longer than a half-hour at a time. You have a power and privilege situation here in that the art directors have been there longer, so you perceive that they have seniority and more privilege to do what they want.

Here's the reality check. You are trying to be understanding and respectful of the art directors in your office and they are not offering the same to you. This is an issue of boundaries and respect. I recommend you try the following:

Speak to the other copywriters about the impact of the music on them and ask why they are not saying anything to the art directors. Ask them if they are willing to have a meeting with all the art directors and copywriters to address the noise situation in the office. Be clear on what you want from the copywriters and ask them to speak up in the meeting and to not leave you hanging out there as the spokesperson.

Set up a meeting with all the copywriters and art directors in your office. Indicate that you enjoy working in the office and the casual atmosphere. Also indicate that you appreciate their work and that they may have a different creative process and work style. Ask them if they are aware of how you as copywriters like to work and the impact of continuous music on you, the other writers, and your creative process. They likely are not even aware of how the music affects you.

Be upfront. Tell the art directors that you find the music to be distracting and not conducive to producing good copy. Indicate that you appreciate when they turn the music off or down, but point out that this usually lasts for only 30 minutes.

Make a clear request that the art directors either turn off the music or wear their headsets for the periods of the day when you are actively writing. Point out that you will be fine listening to their music (or music that you and your fellow writers would like to listen to) when you are on breaks or are not actively engaged in copywriting. Set up and post a schedule for writing and non-writing times.

Make sure that you and the other copywriters acknowledge and thank the art directors when they comply with your request to wear their headsets or turn off the music. Remember to remind them when they forget to comply with the new commitments.

The office is often a multi-faceted place and needs to be able to accommodate all types of individuals in order to produce a quality final product. Share with them about your process of writing and ask them about their creative process as directors. The more you know about one another, the more understanding and respect that you will build in the team. Communication and affiliation are important. Look for a common vision, values and work guidelines. Make it a "we" situation as opposed to an "us vs. them" situation. Celebrate the final product that is produced by combining all your talents.

Bruce Sandy is principal of and Pathfinder Coaching & Consulting.

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