For all the well-deserved popularity of open plan offices, it’s easy to forget about the importance of office noise reduction. After all, who wants to hear other colleagues’ conversations or an incessant hacking cough?

And yet that’s the reality of an open plan office. Despite its benefits – they are many – a lack of sound privacy is, according to a University of Sydney study, “the biggest drain on employee morale.” Yep. More than visual privacy and more than temperature control. 

How can that be? After all, millennials in particular are fans of working in a collaborative mode. Combine that with other benefits of the open plan office, such as direct views to the outdoors and reduced real estate costs (on an employee-per-square-footage basis), and you’ve got a winning formula for employee satisfaction … right? 

Well, it depends. Primarily on how well you go about designing for office noise reduction. One San Francisco software company (which apparently did not keep office noise reduction in mind when designing their open office) found that audio noise and visual distractions were making it hard to concentrate. In fact, workers in the company’s 20,000 square-foot space reported being able to concentrate only 45 percent of the time at their desks. 

What the heck, right? That’s what the company management thought, evidently, which prompted them to launch an anti-distraction campaign that resulted in some seriously good noise reduction fixes: 

  • They added plants to break up the space so that employees wouldn’t see everything their colleagues were doing every minute.
  • They cut down on instant messaging, putting some communications back on email so as to reduce the constant barrage of notifications. 
  • For noise reduction, they did a seat swap. They moved workers who needed the most privacy (and who were in the loudest part of the space) to the quieter areas of the office, and moved sales and support to the louder areas where open discussions made more sense.

Open plan offices encourage collaboration and conversation, which is key to fostering innovation. But like wearing a tube top, there’s a time and a place. According to Dr. Alan Hedge, professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell, 74 percent of workers say they face “many” disturbances and distractions from noise. Chief among them was chitter-chatter. 
In talking to NPR, Dr. Hedge explained it thus: “In general, if it’s coming from another person, it’s much more disturbing than when it’s coming from a machine.” Chalk it up to our being naturally attuned to man-made sounds. 

So, what’s a company to do? You want the benefits of an open plan office environment, but you also want to make sure your employees can perform. If you’re just starting a build out, you’ve got lots of options. 

Carpet manufacturer Milliken suggests using fiberglass or cellulose wall insulation or investing in double-pane windows for office noise reduction. Other ideas include lowering barriers between desks so employees can speak more directly and quietly; creating smaller meeting rooms, avoiding open ceilings; and offering the flexibility to work remotely. 

  • But let’s say you’ve already invested in an open plan office furniture environment and now you just need a little office noise reduction. Here are few solutions complied from the sources above: 
  • Replace hard flooring with sound-absorbing options like cushion-backed carpet tiles.
  • Encourage freedom of movement. Let workers choose the environment that suits them best throughout the day. 
  • Mask the sound with background noise

And if your open plan office just needs a quick noise reduction fix, throw in some plants. Hey, it works along highways; why not for you?