Working in an office can pose a number of challenges, but perhaps one of the biggest is dealing with the amount of noise pollution. Offices are notoriously noisy, and you might have wondered whether there are any effective cubicle noise reduction techniques that can make your working day more bearable.
Some mild cubicle noise reduction techniques include adding soft furnishings, carpet, and acoustic panels to muffle the noise. Other aggressive methods involve adding mass which is more effective.
I’ll explain these in more detail below, along with some practical examples. But first, let’s take a look at why office spaces are so noisy in order to better understand how we can combat the issue.
Why are offices so noisy?
The modern office is generally a large, simply shaped room with individual cubicles in it. While this model is great in terms of making the space more versatile, it has a big impact on noise pollution levels.
Why is this? In short, sound waves travel through the air and bounce off solid surfaces. Offices are full of what’s called reflective surfaces, which are flat, solid surfaces that are ideal for sound waves. These include:
- Hardwood floors
- Concrete walls and pillars
- Partition walls
- Wooden/metal ceilings
Sound waves reflect off these surfaces so effectively because they’re flat, smooth, and solid, which generally prevents the waves from passing through the object. This leads to echo and reverberation within the room.
Echo and reverberation can lead to sound waves becoming amplified, which results in noises being louder and more distracting. While you won’t necessarily experience echo in a populated office, you’ll inevitably notice the effects of sound waves bouncing off solid surfaces.
Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that, at the most basic level, a room full of people is going to be noisy. The more people you have working in a space, the greater the overall noise level, as each person is contributing to it.
How to reduce noise levels in your cubicle
So if you’re looking for ways to reduce noise levels in your cubicle there are a couple of options you can try. The overall goal is to basically reduce the number of flat surfaces that sound waves can bounce off or to provide enough extra mass to either absorb or dissipate the sound waves.
Below are my top choices for office cubicle noise reduction techniques. Some will obviously be more practical than others depending on your setup, but it’ll be worth trying a few in order to get the best results.
1. Add some soft furnishings
Perhaps the least invasive method for reducing cubicle noise is to add some soft furnishings into the space. The reason this works is that sound waves aren’t able to reflect off soft furnishings as easily and will be absorbed into the material instead.
If you’ve ever moved house and noticed the difference in room acoustics between it being empty and being full of furniture then you’ll know what I mean.
This method also works with heavy solid objects, such as a bookcase, as providing more surfaces for sound waves to reflect off will help them to dissipate quicker. Consider some of the following items to add into your cubicle:
- Potted plants
- Wall hangings
Ideally, add as many soft items as possible, as this will greatly improve the acoustics in your cubicle. Obviously this method doesn’t reduce the amount of noise produced, but it should make the effects less noticeable within your cubicle.
2. Put some carpet on the floor
Hard floors are possibly one of the worst culprits when it comes to noise pollution. Sound can be split into two types: impact noise and airborne noise. Footsteps on the floor are an example of impact noise, and they can be one of the worst kinds.
You’ve probably already noticed how loud someone’s footsteps can be on a hard floor, and this can even be an issue for people on the floor below you. Although your office might already have carpet, if it’s the cheap industrial kind then it might as well not be there.
Adding carpet to the floor is an excellent way to reduce impact noise because the soft carpet dampens the footsteps and provides a barrier between the foot and the hard surface.
The important rule is the thicker the carpet the more it’ll reduce impact noise. Similarly, the more area it covers the better. However, if your boss won’t agree to install expensive shag carpet around the office, then simply install it around your cubicle.
Even just adding a strip of carpet immediately outside your cubicle should make something of a difference, as you’ll be combating the noise close to your location. This would arguably be better than nothing at all.
3. Fix acoustic panels to your cubicle walls
Acoustic panels are a special type of foam that’s designed to reduce echo and reverberation, which are your biggest issues when it comes to office noise pollution. This is the kind of thing you see in recording studios, so you know it’ll be good.
You can buy acoustic panels (Amazon link) easily online, and they’re not at all expensive. The reason these work so well is because they have an open-celled structure, which traps sound waves and prevents them from reflecting.
Also, the troughs and valleys break up the flat surface, making it much harder for sound waves to reflect off the panel. Remember, though, these aren’t for soundproofing but rather acoustic treatment.
Lining the walls of your cubicle with acoustic panels will make a big difference to the level of noise pollution within your space. Adding a few on the outside walls of your cubicle (if you can) won’t hurt too much either.
4. Make the walls of your cubicle higher
Realistically, this might not be the most practical option in a shared office space, but it’s definitely one of the most effective.
The reason this works is that sound waves travel in straight lines, so if you raise your walls higher than head height, then you’ve already cut out a large portion of noise pollution.
While this statement is quite simplistic, it’s true with regard to our concerns about noise pollution. Making your walls taller simply means there’s less space at the top for sound waves to escape over.
Consider some acoustic room dividers (Amazon link) as an example of what you should be looking for. These are more solid than normal partition walls, and so will also absorb a level of noise pollution too.
Obviously this is a fairly expensive and invasive option. However, if you’re able to, then using taller (and more solid) walls is a great first step in making your office cubicle more soundproof.
5. Add mass to your cubicle walls
A simple but fairly effective method for reducing noise levels in your cubicle is to add more mass to the walls. Doing this will mean that less sound is able to enter your cubicle because it’s absorbed by the heavy surface.
However, it’s worth noting that this solution is less effective in very noisy environments, so only try it if current noise levels aren’t that bad. Also, the effectiveness depends on what mass you use.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive option, try something like moving blankets (Amazon link). These are fairly thick and heavy, so will absorb some of the sound waves. Similarly, their soft surface means less sound will reflect off them, so they add a level of acoustic treatment too.
Alternatively, you could try using some heavy drapes. This follows the same principle, but you generally won’t find drapes heavier than moving blankets.
If you want to go all out and don’t mind how it looks, try something like mass loaded vinyl (Amazon link). This stuff is specifically designed for soundproofing and so will make a noticeable difference to noise levels in your cubicle.
For best results, I’d recommend adding the soundproofing solutions to the outside of your cubicle, as you’re trying to prevent noise from coming in. If this isn’t possible, then adding the materials to the inside will also help. However, if you can, do both.
6. Seal any small gaps in the walls
Sound waves have the ability to fit through even the smallest gaps, so it can be worth plugging these as part of your soundproofing project. While this won’t necessarily make a massive difference, it can be effective when used with other options.
Although any kind of caulk will be fine for this job, acoustic caulk such as Green Glue will be the most effective. This is designed specifically for soundproofing jobs, as it converts the sound waves into heat energy.
Make sure you pay attention to even small gaps. You could also consider installing some soundproof door sweeps (Amazon link) along the bottom of your cubicle if there’s a gap, or using pieces of foam for the same job.
Soundproofing generally works along the same lines as heat insulation, so any products you see labeled as draft stoppers will be fairly effective at blocking noise pollution.
7. Hang some acoustic panels around the office
Rather than just paying attention to your cubicle, it can be worth combating noise issues closer to the source. In this instance, this means looking at ways to reduce noise pollution within the office space.
An excellent way to do this is to hang acoustic panels around the office, particularly in key areas. These panels basically do the same job as acoustic foam (reducing echo and reverberation) but are designed to be more visually appealing.
You’d see this kind of acoustic panel in spaces such as restaurants or theaters, although they’re often designed to not look like acoustic panels. Many will be covered in fabric or designed to look like prints.
The key is to hang them in the right places so as to reduce overall levels of echo in the room. For example, it can be good to start by hanging them in the corners, and on large, flat surfaces such are bare walls.
This guide has some useful information on how to hang acoustic panels and there’s also plenty of information on where to hang acoustic panels too. However, this will be an office-wide project, so make sure your boss is on board before you buy all the equipment.
8. Alter the layout of the office
An effective way of working around the issue, particularly if adding soundproofing materials isn’t practical, is to change the layout of the office.
Obviously, there are different ways to do this, but for example, you could group the noisy cubicles together and locate them away from the quieter cubicles. While this won’t reduce noise levels, it should make them less of a problem for those bothered by noise.
Another option is to install partitions between teams so that noise is blocked to a greater extent. Also, you can use some of the solutions listed above (such as adding more soft furnishings) to effectively reduce noise pollution levels.
For example, adding soft features (such as seating) near a solid wall will be more effective than locating it in the middle of the room. Another suggestion would be to locate cubicle entrances facing away from the room, so the walls are between the worker and the noise source.
9. Pump in ambient noise
Another thing to consider is that for many people, the actual noise isn’t the problem; it’s not being able to ignore it. This is particularly true if people are talking, as we’ll often subconsciously be listening if we can make out what’s being said.
A way of getting around this is to provide background music to try and break up the sound of conversations. You might find that simply not being able to hear what’s being said will reduce how distracting the noise actually is.
Some final thoughts
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to reduce noise levels in an office cubicle. The best advice I can give is to try several solutions, as many will be more effective when used as part of a strategy.