In an open office with high or low cubicles, occupants do not have a lot of control over how much sound attenuation they can perform. But even under these circumstances, you should be able to make some changes that make the noise entering your cubicle at least somewhat more acceptable. Here are some suggestions you can try, or at least suggest, to make things better.
11 Cubicle Soundproofing Ideas
Chances are good that you will not convince your employer to pour a significant amount of money into modifying all of the cubicles in your work space. Regardless of how sound you can make your arguments. So, plan on improving your own work space. With any luck, some of your co-workers will emulate your efforts, because soundproofing is much more effective when done as close to the source of the noise as possible.
Keep in mind that you will not be a total success because almost all cubicle walls stop well before reaching the ceiling leaving the top of your space wide open to noise infiltration. Also keep in mind the 3 Decibel Rule, which will give you reason for optimism. (See 3 Decibel Rule below.)
1) Share Soundproofing Ideas With Management & Co-workers
This is a fairly obvious first step. If the noise is bothering you, it is probably bothering others. Convincing more of your co-workers, and especially management to get on the same page eliminates the single voice crying in the wilderness problem. It is always a good idea to have an organized presentation prepared–for whomever you are talking to. Some ideas you may wish to include could be:
- Rules of Etiquette. These might include types of footwear (especially on hard floors), no speakerphones in the cubicles, no loitering outside cubicles.
- Rearrange Seating. Some people are just naturally loud. It makes soundproof sense to try corralling them in one area. Maybe add some soundproof room dividers between the loud section and the quieter section of the office.
- Soundproof ‘Loud’ Room. Set aside a room for loud conversations, conference calls, etc. Instead of a contractor built room, check out some of the prefabbed options from Archiproducts.com.
- Cell Phone Rules. Suggest that they be set to vibrate, or be turned off. (If I made the rules, I would ban them from the office. Completely.)
- No Talking to Other Cubicles. One of the great advantages of cubicle work space is quick accessibility to co-workers. But having people shouting from cubicle to cubicle or hanging over partition walls chatting serves no purpose. Walk over to the person you want to talk to.
- Soundproofing Improvements. Include a list of the following soundproofing suggestions–most of which are not difficult or expensive. It could help move your office in the right direction.
2) Add Carpet to the Floor
All hardwood, concrete, tile, and linoleum floors are hard and reflect noise. Ideally, you want carpet throughout the entire area, but at the very least in the walkway outside your cubicle and in your cubicle. The carpet inside your cubicle will absorb some sound but will also make it quieter for your co-workers. (Maybe they will take the hint.) Any type of carpet will be an improvement but heavy thick wool is quieter. RugPadUSA underlayment will make the floor softer and will absorb more sound. Use double sided carpet tape to hold things down. You will not endear yourself to a co-worker who trips over your carpet.
For more information on underlayment please see our article Best Soundproof Underlayment.
3) Use Floor Mats
Instead of, or in addition to, carpets you can put down some soundproofing rubber floor mats. Get thick and dense mats that will absorb sound–either from surrounding area or the sound made in your cubicle. Whether you place the mats under the carpet, on the carpet, or on solid flooring, make sure they held tight to the floor with double sided carpet tape to eliminate tripping hazards.
4) Raise the Cubicle Wall Height
Cubicle walls tend to be between 4′ and 5.5′ tall. Replacing existing dividers with an acoustic office partition that is at least 6′ high will greatly reduce noise pollution entering your cubicle and prevent all but the tallest neighbor from hanging over the divider.
Although only 66″ high, acoustic office partitions have a Noise Reduction Coefficient of 0.85 meaning they absorb 85% of the sound trying to pass through them.
For more information on room dividers please see our articles Best Acoustic Room Dividers and Portable Soundproof Walls and Best Soundproof Room Divider Curtains for Quiet Privacy.
5) Hang Soundproof Curtains or Thick Blankets
You will need access to the office on the weekend for this soundproofing option. Because you will be hanging curtains or blankets from the ceiling above the walls of your cubicle to close off the big gap between top of walls and ceiling. This is where most of the noise is coming from. It will pass over walls or reflect from ceilings into your space.
Order Nicetown Soundproof Blackout Curtains of the proper size and curtain rods to match. Install them directly above the walls of your cubicle so they hang onto your side of the walls. (These curtains will cut out a tremendous amount of noise.) You might need a laser level to find the proper anchor spots on the ceiling.
Note: These curtains are quite heavy. They probably will not work in T-Bar drop ceilings or anything else where finding a solid anchor spot is difficult or impossible. Besides a laser level you may also want a stud finder to find ceiling joists for anchor sites.
Instead of curtains, you can also use soundproof blankets, which are usually less expensive and long enough to get close to reaching the floor. (Keep in mind that these are moving blankets which usually come either black or blue.) Many of the blankets have grommets on one side for hanging on rods. (You can also get a grommet machine if you want to install grommets in blankets without them.)
6) Make the Cubicle ‘Softer’
Hard surfaces reflect noise; soft furnishings will absorb sounds. Obviously, it is pretty difficult to find a soft desk, although a thick desk pad/calendar will absorb some sound. You also have an excuse for a messy desk, because all the paper and stuff will absorb some noise and/or deflect it in random directions.
Some cubicle walls are made of fabric covered material, which work well to absorb sound and make your office quieter. But most of them are made of hard materials like drywall, wood, glass–many of which are next to worthless at noise absorption. Draping soundproof blankets over the cubicle walls will provide very good sound absorption.
Some other noise absorbing or diffusing ideas you might consider include:
- Soft Chairs. Sound waves do not reflect from soft surfaces as easily as hard surfaces. They will be absorbed instead.
- Cushions. If you cannot, or do not want to, move in soft furniture, at least consider adding cushions to absorb sound.
- Drapes. For the doorway.
- Wall Hangings. Cloth-type wall hangings will absorb sound waves. You could also put up sound absorb panels or sound diffusers. (Some of the designs are quite attractive.)
- Potted Plants. Plants are not noise absorbers, but they will break up sound waves making them less intense when they bounce off hard surfaces.
7) Use Acoustic Panels to Absorb Sound
Acoustic panels are available in many styles, colors, and thicknesses. They are engineered to absorb noise. Find a style you like and put them up in your cubicle. In a normal room c/w ceiling about 30% wall coverage is sufficient to absorb much of the noise. I do not know if that is true for a cubicle because of no walls to the ceiling and no ceiling. But you can start with a few panels and add as required.Dekiru Acoustic Panels are 4/10″ thick, available in 8 colors, and easy to install. There are many styles and colors of egg crate style acoustic foam panels available, if you like that type of look.
For more information on acoustic panels please see our article DIY Acoustic Panels: 21 Plans for Making Sound Absorbing Panels.
8) Close the Gaps
Wherever air moves, noise will go with it. Although it may seem foolish to try seal gaps in your cubicle walls when there is no ceiling, remember the 3 Decibel Rule. Every little bit helps.
Many cubicles are not only open at the top, but quite often the walls do not sit on the floor, leaving a gap for more noise to get in–like your neighbor’s shredder, printer, etc. One way to close those gaps is to hang heavy material over them. You can get soundproof blankets, cut them to size, and pin them to the wall in such a way to cover the lower gaps.
If your cubicle is made of solid walls and there are gaps in the corners, you can use a good caulking to seal those gaps. (Many caulking products are available in multiple colors, or can be painted.)
9) Get a White Noise Machine or Fan
It is well known that the noise produced by fans can provide some of the best white noise. Which is why almost all white noise machines will offer a selection of fan sounds in addition to nature sounds.
For more detailed information and product reviews on white noise machines and white noise fans please see our articles The Best White Noise Machine for an Office of 2022 and The Best White Noise Fans of 2022.
White noise machines are fairly small and will likely fit unobtrusively on your desk. Every type of fan will be much larger than a white noise machine. Even a tower fan, which is tall and slim, can have a footprint 13 inches in diameter.
You will have to decide on what type and style of fan is feasible in your cubicle. Box fan, tower fan, desk fan, pedestal fan, or even a small clip on the desk fan. All will provide white noise. Our article will give you what you need to make an informed decision.
10) Use Noise Cancelling HeadphonesNoise cancelling headphones are very efficient at isolating you from the racket swirling around the typical cubicle office space. Making it difficult, if not impossible, to hear your office phone ring. Then you have to remove them to hear and speak on the phone. So make sure that you buy headphones that are compatible with your phone system or some kind of Bluetooth setup that allows you to be hooked up to the system, and be capable of doing your job efficiently.
You may get an idea or two from our article Best Noise Cancelling Ear Muffs for Sleeping of 2022.
11) Install a Door
Many cubicle offices have an open door, or no door, policy so I am not sure how much luck you will have getting a door on your cubicle. But it is certainly worth a try–if your walls are tall enough. If you are stuck with the 4 1/2′ walls, or even 5 1/2′ walls, a door is a little tough to install. Putting in a solid standard door will look a little goofy, but it can be done with a prehung door.
Note: Being the kind of guy I am, I would remove the tripod stands from the side poles, drill holes into the pipe, and screw the frame to the the sides of my cubicle doorway. That will keep it solid and sturdy, and eliminate any chance of it falling on someone.
12) Engineer a Move
Regardless of all the soundproofing efforts you make, the chances of silencing the loudmouthed schnook next door are probably limited. Although it seems a little cold hearted (leaving someone else to put up with him) talk to your boss about a move. If you can round up your noisy co-workers and move them all as far away from everyone else, it will certainly quiet down at least part of the room.
Adding some taller, noise reducing acoustic dividers between the loud gang and the rest of the office will make it even quieter.
A Little About Cubicle Noise
Before you can fix it, you should know a little about the underlying causes. As society has progressed (?), it has moved from individual offices and typing pools through various stages to office cubicles. And cubicle walls that are getting lower in the name of easy collaboration, teamwork, and efficiency.
A Harvard Business Review article quoted a study that found lack of sound privacy affected nearly 60% of cubicle dwellers–regardless of partition heights. (Even open offices with no partitions scored 10% better.) So any soundproofing efforts put into cubicles will make workers happier and more productive.
Cubicle Noise is that kind of office sound made up of conversations, phones, computers, printers, shredders, photocopiers, staplers, paper rustling, and all of the noises you generally cannot separate from the normal office environment. Eventually, it becomes part of your existence–until you walk out of the place. Then you start planning ways to make it quieter.
3 Decibel Rule
The 3 Decibel Rule states “Every 3-decibel change represents a doubling or halving of sound energy”. Meaning that the apparently small reduction in decibel level can produce big rewards in your peace level. For more detailed information on the 3 Decibel Rule please go to pulsarinstruments.com.
|Change in dB||Change in sound energy|
|3 dB increase||sound energy is doubled|
|3 dB decrease||sound energy is halved|
|10 dB increase||sound energy is increased by a factor of 10|
|10 dB decrease||sound energy is decreased by a factor of 10|
|20 dB increase||sound energy is increased by a factor of 100|
|20 dB decrease||sound energy is decreased by a factor of 100|
Chart courtesy of Pulsar Instruments
You should have a decibel meter to measure noise in your office throughout the day. Just set it on your desk and trigger it every 30 minutes. Record the results. Do the same thing after your soundproofing efforts. This is also some data you can share with co-workers and management.
Cubicle style offices are designed to be inexpensive and space saving. They are also well known as one of the worst working spaces, because of the near overwhelming noise pollution. Unfortunately, the design will be around until something cheaper comes along.
Various studies have shown that excessive noise levels are one of the greatest frustrations cubicle employees put up with. High noise levels also affect production and employee retention–negatively. It may be very positive to consider some of the following cubicle cures.
- Carpet the entire area.
- Change phone system to headsets and microphones. There are many wireless headset/phone systems available. Some of the double earmuff styles have noise cancelling technology.
- Distribute the Office Etiquette Guidelines. A few ideas to put into it could be: No Speakerphones, Cell Phones to Vibrate or Off, No Conference Calls in the Cubicle.
- Soundwaves just love to bounce and echo off smooth, hard surfaces. Add acoustic panels, soundproof wallpaper, and sound diffusers not only to individual cubicles but to the walls and ceiling of the whole room to absorb and diffuse noise for everyone.