Open office noise. Phones ring. Apps ping. Keyboards clickety-clack. Colleagues chat. The HVAC kicks on and off. Background office noise is also called “noise pollution,” fittingly. And it’s a severe problem with open layouts. Luckily, a few noise canceling and reduction solutions can restore ambiance.

Included Content…

  • Sound is a good thing. Beneficial, or biophilic sound is conducive to focus and well-being. This is why acoustic solutions like office pods and booths are comfortably quiet, not totally quiet. They convert a distracting ~70dB blare into a calming ~40dB hum.

  • 10 best practices for managing office noise at an organizational level.

  • Solutions for each office acoustic problem… If your office echoes, add “fuzz” with soft, noise dampening material. If it’s uncomfortably quiet, consider a sound masking system. If it lacks speech privacy, look to speech privacy systems, space division, and office pods/booths. If it’s just plain noisy with calls, meetings, and collaboration, “trap” the worst noise offenders with acoustic cabins for the office.

  • The rule of thumb: where to place your acoustic treatments.

  • 11 signs that portable, soundproof office pods are the right solution for your office noise problem.

The bad news, first: open office noise kills productivity.

A survey from the Leesman Review shows 76% of office workers list noise as a crucial workplace factor, yet only 30% are happy with the noise levels in their office. One study finds that listening to just one extra conversation can make us 66% less productive.

This makes sense when we consider that speech is regarded as the most distracting source of noise in an office. In fact, human-created sounds are one of the worst workplace distractions. And there’s even a link between office noise and burnout (check our post: Is the open space office burning people out?).

Some elementary education: office acoustics 101

But all is not lost! The right solutions can turn a cacophonous workplace into a calm one. First, let’s get some foundations out of the way. Key terms, the watered-down science of sound, and a core principle: why sound is a good thing.

Sound masking versus soundproofing

Sound masking and soundproofing are two very different animals.

What is office sound masking?

Office sound masking is the addition of natural or artificial sound to cover up unwanted, irritating noises. Another way to look at it: covering an unpleasant sound with a pleasant one that’s more soothing and diffuse. Also called “auditory masking.”

Adding the right sound to a space can make the space quieter.

Sounds counterintuitive, yes. But the new sound essentially blankets or “masks” noises, reducing speech intelligibility. And less intelligible speech is less attention-grabbing. Because our brain doesn’t register the speech as “speech” anymore, the space seems quieter. Wa-la.

Sound masking reduces the radius of distraction.

Or distance at which speech is intelligible from the speaker. Properly designed, the best white noise or sound masking machine for office privacy can’t actually be heard. It just becomes a background hum. Sometimes it’s engineered to match human speech. Sometimes it’s artificial office white noise — or “pink” or “brown” noise.

It also gives a workplace acoustical privacy.