Office Soundproofing—Why It’s Important and How to Do It
If you’ve ever shopped for a new office, office soundproofing is probably not the first thing you thought about; yet the impact of elevated noise levels on your employees is undeniable. The modern office space is filled with disturbances and distractions that affect your employees’ productivity as well as their morale and well-being. Noise reduction in the office environment is not something to be overlooked.
Why soundproofing an office is important
According to a recent survey conducted by Udemy—the online learning platform—reducing distraction at work results in happier employees who get more done. Noise affects mental health, too, according to a 2016 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “Depression and anxiety increased [in direct correlation] with the degree of overall noise annoyance,” the study found—the more office noise, the higher the reported anxiety and depression.
There are privacy concerns as well. A private conversation with HR in a room with uninsulated office walls and poor sound absorption may end up not-so-private. Overheard conversations in neighboring offices are an all-too-common occurrence that can potentially lead to serious legal issues if private information is overheard by other employees.
Background noise in the open office
The office environment has changed quite a bit over the years, with an open office setting being much more typical than private, individual offices. In fact, these days private offices are more commonly reserved for higher-level executives. The average employee in a modern office environment has a desk in either an open office layout or in a cubicle. In either situation, office noise is the norm.
Soundproofing solutions to the distractions in a modern office
Soundproofing offices effectively can be laborious and costly, but your office might not need a complex soundproofing treatment. The first step, before investing large amounts of time and money, is to determine what your working environment requires.
That begins with analyzing the problem. Before you start pricing various soundproofing materials and absorption products, and certainly before you consider hiring a specialist, consider why your office needs soundproofing. Different acoustic problems require different solutions.
Begin by examining the source of the noise. Is the biggest source of your noise problem coming from outside, or from within the office itself?
Are you on a busy street corner with traffic noise that annoys the whole office? Do your employees frequently collaborate on projects, disturbing others in the process? Do you have noisy neighbors? Do conversations in the break room inconvenience those who are trying to work? Do your “private” offices have paper-thin walls?
Next, consider what you’re trying to accomplish. Complete quiet for the whole office will be a much bigger challenge than just creating a few quiet spaces for occasional use.
Soundproofing open offices and “cubicle farms”
In an office space composed primarily of cubicles, the denizens of those cubbyholes often see noise as a fact of their on-the-job life. Working with headphones is the norm and quiet is a rare commodity. Complete silence in such an environment only happens on weekends and holidays, if at all.
Completely open offices, with no cubicles at all, can be even more problematic. Cubicle walls themselves do a pretty good job of absorbing and deflecting sound waves, so other methods of noise control become essential when the cubicles are eliminated.
Regardless of the office layout, noise control is a better target than complete noise elimination. And the first thing to consider is outside sound—if there’s noise coming through the walls, windows, and ceiling, it may not matter how high-quality your interior acoustic solutions are. If loud noise from outside is still getting in, it’s still going to be a problem.
Getting rid of outside noise
If you have a lot of sound coming in from outside, that is the first part of the sound problem to deal with. The right products for this issue will deal with sound transmission through the windows, doors, walls, and ceilings.
When shopping for sound barriers and sound absorption materials, there’s a rating you’ll run across called Sound Transmission Class, or STC. This rating lets you know just how effective the product will be at sound deadening—the higher the number, the greater the “decibel reduction.” In other words, a higher rating means less sound gets through.
Products that will help reduce outside noise include:
- Window inserts – These are essentially an inexpensive way to add another window pane to existing windows and can work remarkably well to reduce noise from the outside.
- Acoustic curtains – Used along with inserts or on their own, these add an additional noise-absorption barrier between your work environment and the outside world. As a bonus, both the inserts and curtains can improve the office’s thermal insulation—especially nice if you’re paying to heat and cool your office.
- Soundproofing insulation – This one won’t always be possible, particularly in existing buildings. But if you’re able to insulate the walls, it’s one of the most effective options. Any insulation material will help with outside noise, but using insulation specifically designed for the purpose is a much better option than the fiberglass batts we’re all familiar with. Most brands have R-values comparable to typical thermal insulation materials but will significantly raise the walls’ STC ratings.
- Acoustic ceiling tiles – They may not be as effective as other soundproofing products, but if you have noise entering your office space from above, an acoustic ceiling system can help. Typically, though, they are more effective at reducing echo inside the room than they are at absorbing sound from outside.
Reducing noise inside
In a cubicle-filled office, and even more in a completely open office, much of your noise-fighting effort should be dedicated to combatting the sounds inside the office itself. There are a number of ways this can be done that all work well together for noise control. One of the most effective is to provide quiet spaces that employees can use when they need them.
- Office privacy pods – Modular “pods” like this office phone booth from Thinktanks are a near-ideal solution to the problems of a noisy office environment. Once set up in your office, all they need is a place to plug them in. They offer a soundproof “office-within-an-office” for employees to get work done, make phone calls, or conduct private meetings. They range in size from single-person booths to four-person conference rooms, and you can assemble one in about an hour.
Acoustic panels – Designed to absorb sound within the room, acoustic panels simply hang on the wall like a painting, and in fact some are even made to resemble works of art. Aside from hanging them on the office walls, consider adding some of the simpler foam panels to cubicle walls as well.
When looking at acoustic products like these, you’ll want to pay attention to their rating. The current rating standard is called the Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC), but it is now being replaced with a new standard called Sound Absorption Average, or SAA; with either standard, a higher number means better noise absorption.
- Carpet – One of the simpler sound reduction solutions, it is particularly effective at reducing the sound of people walking around. It can reduce the sound of footsteps by as much as 34 decibels when used in conjunction with an underlay. Even when used on its own, a reduction of as much as 25 dB is possible.
- Taller cubicle walls – Raising the height of the cubicles is a great way to reduce disturbances to the workers in those cubicles. If replacing the cubicle walls entirely isn’t an option, extensions are available that attach to the tops of existing dividers.
- White noise – Not all “noise” is created equal. While it’s not the ideal solution, and some studies show white noise to be a problem itself, white noise is far less disruptive to important work than many other office sounds, and might actually help people to concentrate.
- Plants – Possibly the simplest and least expensive acoustical solution, it’s also one of the easiest to overlook. Adding plants around the office helps absorb sound and to break up the sound waves. Of course reducing decibel levels is just one of a number of benefits of having plants around the office, so it’s worth adding a few regardless.
Controlling noise in your office can be challenging, but over the long term the effort is rewarded with happier, more productive employees. Some solutions can be time-consuming or costly, though some of the simpler options can be remarkably effective. Regardless of the soundproofing options you choose, adding an office privacy pod, or several, will provide employees with the choice to be working out among their coworkers or to take advantage of the available isolation.
Do you have any other suggestions to minimize background noise in the office? Do you wish your own office would employ some of these solutions? Let us know in the comments!