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.

It allows employees to focus thereby increasing productivity. Sound masking systems for the office include office noise makers, generators, and sound machines. They’re sometimes called privacy noise or sound machines. Some manufacturers also call them noise canceling, dampening, or masking machines and devices.

What is office soundproofing?

Office soundproofing is a method of controlling sound’s travel through the use of soft, sound-absorptive materials like decorative acoustic panels, soundproof foams, sound deadening curtains, soundproof paints, baffles, matting, and dividers. The list of solutions is virtually endless.

There are two basic approaches to office soundproofing…

1. Increase the distance between the sound source and receiver.

2. Implement sound-dampening barriers in the space to reflect or absorb sound energy (to intercept sound as it travels).

Soundproofing prevents resonance and reverberation.

It’s also called acoustical control or sound dampening, absorption, or insulation. Soundproofing is a simple way to improve office acoustics because it’s a simple matter of bringing in materials that absorb noise.

The science of sound, simplified

After a sound is made, it travels. As it travels, it’s either absorbed by soft materials, or “fuzz” (fabrics, foams, carpets…), or reflected by “hard” smooth surfaces (glass, steel, wood…). So if your space has a lot of hard materials and few soft materials, sound likely ricochets within it, bouncing off one hard surface after the next.

Sound is a good thing.

Now, for the pivotal point. Sound is a good thing! Beneficial, or biophilic sound, is conducive to focus and well-being. Think beach waves, babbling brooks, or light rain. Noise, on the other hand, is a bad thing. Defined as any sound that breaks attention or creates stress. I.e., all of those infamous workplace noises mentioned above.

So absolute quiet isn’t the goal.

No, no. Absolute quiet is actually uncomfortable and unhealthy for humans. Just check out the anechoic chamber, which can actually drive a person crazy.

Instead, acoustic ambiance is the goal.

Or a sound quality that just feels right. People get awkward and anxious in stark quiet spaces. They’re hyper-self-conscious of being overheard or distracting others. This is why acoustic solutions like office pods and booths are comfortably quiet, not totally quiet. They convert a disturbing ~70dB blare into a calming ~40dB hum. 70 dB is as loud as a dishwasher, while 40 dB is as quiet as the library.

The hushMeet.S 2-person pod is a small acoustic meeting cabin for the office.
The hushMeet.S 2-person pod is a small acoustic meeting cabin for the office.

10 best practices for managing office noise at a high level

  1. Where seats are assigned, strategically arrange project or department teams in groups. Separate groups using soundproof partitions of some sort. This way, teams that regularly collaborate can do so without bothering others.

  2. Seat louder teammates or teams next to each other. Perhaps one department or project group tends to communicate or brainstorm solutions verbally on the regular. Seat these teammates together, distanced from quieter ones where possible. Say your accounting team needs relative privacy while your marketing team needs relative high-energy. Arranging teams in clusters helps satisfy everyone.

  3. Make sure you have enough conference rooms. A lack of conference rooms is an open office noise problem for two reasons. First, focus on the open floor is regularly broken by meeting noise. Second, meeting attendee focus is stunted by that hyper-self-consciousness of being listened to. Consider a soundproofed conference booth like hushMeet.L as a flexible alternative to structural rooms. It’s modular, seating between 4-8 employees. Office booths and pods like hushMeet.L work because they’re carefully designed for private meetings.

  4. Encourage your team to break for lunch in cafes, lounges, and patios instead of breaking in work areas.

  5. Make sure you have enough private workspaces. Though the open space office harnesses collaboration exceptionally well when done right, some employees just can’t concentrate without peace and quiet. Private office work pods like hushWork.sit&stand are an attractive option, offering privacy, quiet, and an adjustable environment (lighting and ventilation).

  6. Consider asking employees to set their devices to silent, so calls and push notifications aren’t upsetting anyone.

  7. Keep machines like printers, faxes, and coffee makers in an enclosed room or zone separate from work areas.

  8. Give employees places to take private calls. Quiet, acoustic privacy, and speech intelligibility are the crucial marks. Without them, call ease is hampered. Without them, the employee taking the call on-site is not only challenged by background office noise. They may also be unable to hear nuances in tone or tune into their own message to communicate it fluidly. If infrastructure is out of the question, consider a solution like the hushPhone office call booth. Mobile call booths for the office like hushPhone are highly functional, equipped with every feature needed for great calls. Because they’re portable, they give a team layout flexibility, too. Check out hushPhone’s specs.

  9. Space-plan by soundscape. In layman’s terms, create “active” and “quiet” acoustic zones using sound dampening room dividers. Position them so that no zone impedes another’s effectiveness. Perhaps your breakroom zone gets rowdy and should be positioned far away from your deep work zone, which is always tranquil.

  10. Provide private meeting spaces. In-person team meetings are staples in a hybrid, agile world. If your layout lacks such spaces, 3-4 person office meeting pods like hushMeet and 2-person acoustic meeting pods like hushMeet.S are popular products to consider. Meeting booth pods trap all meeting noise while supporting pure focus. They’re also mobile, giving the office awesome adjustability. Read more on this topic: 5 essential hybrid office investments.

HushWork.sit&stand is a one-person soundproof work booth
HushWork.sit&stand is a one-person soundproof work booth. Its peaceful ambiance supports focus through concentrative tasks.

Solutions for each office acoustic problems

Does your space echo? Is it awkwardly quiet? Does it lack speech privacy? It is just plain rampant with noise from calls, meetings, and collaboration? The following fixes target each problem, respectively.

If your space echoes, add “fuzz” with soft, noise dampening materials.

The great thing about sound-absorbing ceiling tiles, acoustic wall panels, acoustic dampening curtains, and the like is that they’re often customizable. They can fit any space. They come in a wide range of materials, colors, and shapes, too. So they give a lot to your office’s aesthetic.

Noise dampening acoustic treatments are also relatively af