Designing a noise-free open office

Stefan Bhagwandin's Layout avatar

Creative agencies are proud to be at the forefront of design. When it comes time to lay out a new workspace, that means embracing the latest office design trends as well.

The open office is probably the most dominant trend in office design of the past 5-10 years. The layout, which swaps cubicles for large tables and ditches assigned seating for a more flexible alternative, has its ups and downs. On one hand, it’s great to be rid of the cursed cubicles of old. Open offices are unquestionably more aesthetically appealing, and they encourage interaction between employees. The downside, however, is that they are loud.

If you’ve ever worked at an open room in a large company, you’d know that “loud” is an understatement. Open layouts are great when the room is half-empty, but once you start cramming too many people into the same space, the distractions multiply. Reports indicate that noise distractions are causing workers to lose up to 86 minutes per day, and that says nothing of the visual distraction of having people constantly walking across your periphery.


Clearly, it’s worth investing in noise reduction. Here are a few tricks that designers can use to keep open offices as quiet as possible.

1. Make a dedicated quiet zone

The most straightforward solution is to direct the noise elsewhere. If you can’t stop it, you can at least quarantine it. While not the most elegant solution, it’s true that having multiple zones where employees can do different types of work is crucial for open offices to succeed.

Flexibility is what makes open layouts work. Workers don’t necessarily want to socialize all the time; some people are more outgoing than others, and everyone has work to finish by the end of the day. Yet, everyone wants the freedom to choose. Dedicating different rooms to different types of work means that workers can choose to work in a quiet zone if that’s their thing, and they can use a louder area if they don’t mind a bit of chatter.


2. Use background noise to muffle the sound

Surprisingly, background noise can be used to your advantage. It’s kind of like noise-canceling headphones: by playing repetitive, ambient sound in the background, you can hide the distracting elements of open office noise. In general, speech is far more distracting than unintelligible sounds mixed with white noise.

Even in a loud environment like an airplane, it’s easy to forget the noise of the engines once you settle into a good book. It’s only when your neighbors in front of you start chatting that you lose your focus. Similarly, strategic use of white noise can make open offices more productive, even if it won’t make them quieter.

3. Choose noise-damping materials

I know, I know: you don’t want your office to look like a recording studio. Proper noise-damping materials aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, and they can be costly. What you might not know is that there are plenty of everyday, design-friendly objects that are good at absorbing sound.

Plants are a great example. It’s just like how the city plants trees along busy highways: plants are natural noise-absorbers, and they’re something you’d want to incorporate into your office for aesthetic purposes anyway. Plants are a good pick for the office because they make workers feel closer to nature (something that’s been shown to help with productivity). If they absorb unwanted noise too, then all the better.


For larger-scale renovations, remember that soft objects absorb more sound than hard objects. There are many reasons to not install carpet in your office, but it’s true that carpets make for a quieter work space. Walls are important too: if you find any pieces of art that are made of soft, sound-absorbing materials, they could be worth the investment.

If you’re not an office designer yourself and you simply work in a large, noisy agency, most of these changes will be beyond your control. Still, it couldn’t hurt to speak up—management might not realize what it’s like to work in open offices for extended periods if they’re not doing it themselves.

And hey, when all else fails, you can put on a pair of headphones and call it a day.

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