It may be the leader in a social revolution, and wield immense power, yet Google has earned the wrath of one US journalist over its choice of office design. According to Lindsay Kaufman, Google is just one in a long list of globally resognised organisations that are ditching partitioned partitioned offices for open-plan designs, which she states are “beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive”, jeopardising privacy, particularly conversations.

Even Toronto’s new mayor John Tory has taken issue with the noise environment in his office, saying that he has eavesdropped on “many conversations” he shouldn’t have heard in an adjacent boardroom.

So, if you, like so many other businesses have have decided that 2015 is the chance to move into an airy, flowing open-plan office and can’t turn back, here are some small and inexpensive steps before, during and after you set-up your office, that can significantly reduce office noise.

1. Consider background noise

decibel meter on an iphone

The greatest disruption to workers comes from general activity noise. Phones, conversations, appliances and mechanical services such as services ceilings and air conditioning units can all affect concentration and contribute to decibel levels in a room.

Download a decibel meter for your smartphone and test the noise levels in your office while fully operational. Research suggests that an ideal level of steady background noise for offices is between 45dBA and 50dBA.

2. Zone Your Space

Areas of your office where communication is essential should be placed where noise disruption is least likely – away from doorways, corridors and mechanical services.

Areas where privacy is sought after (small meeting spaces, break-out rooms) should be positioned where higher levels of background noise exist.

3. Plants Can Reduce Office Noise (Yes, Plants)

Plants can reduce noise in offices

Indoor plants have numerous benefits, including improving air quality and adding natural elements to sterile environments; but they can also reduce office noise. Stems, leaves and branches all absorb sound. They are also flexible and can deflect and refract sound.

Check out this guide on how to use plants to reduce noise.

4. Understand Your Finishings

If your office is comprised of hard, reverberant surfaces, such as glass, metal, wood or concrete, then your space is likely to have a lengthy reverberation time if no sound absorption is present.

We recommend reverberation time in an open plan office to be no more than one second. You can get a ballpark figure for your reverberation time by inputting your room measurements and finishings using this online calculator based on Sabine’s Equation. If you want a more accurate measurement, then contact a qualified acoustician.

5. Consider Adding Absorption To Your Ceiling

suspended acoustic ceiling used to reduce office noise

Suspended acoustic ceilings are the most effective ways to to increase absorption in a space.

As opposed to acoustic partitioning, which can undermine modern open-plan office interiors and can be exorbitantly expensive, suspended acoustic panels can be strategically placed to hide exposed soffits and other highly reverberant surfaces.

The flexibility of suspended acoustic ceilings means noisy areas can be targeted and diffused without forgoing open-plan design.

6. It’s Not All About Absorption

Understand external noise sources.

If your office is naturally ventilated then aircraft, road traffic, train and weather noise must be taken into consideration. Are there car parks, ramps and gates within the building that may transfer noise to your office? Is there footfall from other floors of the building? Noise from doors and corridors outside of your office? If external noise sources are going to present an issue, then you might want to speak to your building manager and enquire about room-to-room insulation.

Be Sure To Strike a Balance

Too much absorption can make a space feel unnatural. A completely dead office is no fun, you want to be able to hear your colleague and not feel like you are trapped in a box.Too little absorption, however, will mean long reverberation times, leading to workers talking over each other and hindering work productivity.

If you want to reduce office noise then these steps will give you a good understanding of the severity of your acoustic issue and what can be done about it.

With smart office zoning, an understanding of your noise environment and where treatments would be most effective, you can limit the amount of money and time you have to spend fixing noise issues.



  • Parkin, A. (2011). A guide to office acoustics.
  • Kenneth, F. (2014). How Plants Can Reduce Noise Levels Indoors. Huffington Post. Available at: