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Sound Proof Cubicles

How to Soundproof Cubicles

How to Soundproof Cubicles

In the age of beanbags, shared desks, and chairs you don’t quite know how to sit in, the cubicle tends to get a bad rap. We’re here to stand up for the tried and true cubicle. When done right, cubicles offer enough privacy for employees working on confidential or sensitive information. Cubicles also help prevent distractions for work that requires focus and concentration. And while giving everyone their own private office sounds great, it can be a big practical challenge. Cubicles give companies and building owners more flexibility in layout and help keeps costs down since they don’t require complex HVAC or lighting systems. There are also “soft benefits” that are often discussed but hard to quantify, such as increased interactions among employees.

Unfortunately when most people think about cubicles, they think about a grid of dull gray walls that hardly keep out any noise. We’ve all had the pleasure of working next to cubicle neighbors who refuse to use headphones, type like they are punishing their keyboard, and constantly need to clear their throat. We’re here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to create a productive, collaborative, and cost-effective workspace with cubicles.

In the age of beanbags, shared desks, and chairs you don’t quite know how to sit in, the cubicle tends to get a bad rap. We’re here to stand up for the tried and true cubicle. When done right, cubicles offer enough privacy for employees working on confidential or sensitive information. Cubicles also help prevent distractions for work that requires focus and concentration. And while giving everyone their own private office sounds great, it can be a big practical challenge. Cubicles give companies and building owners more flexibility in layout and help keeps costs down since they don’t require complex HVAC or lighting systems. There are also “soft benefits” that are often discussed but hard to quantify, such as increased interactions among employees.

Unfortunately when most people think about cubicles, they think about a grid of dull gray walls that hardly keep out any noise. We’ve all had the pleasure of working next to cubicle neighbors who refuse to use headphones, type like they are punishing their keyboard, and constantly need to clear their throat. We’re here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to create a productive, collaborative, and cost-effective workspace with cubicles.

Free USA shipping
Free USA shipping

Popular Products for Cubicle Noise Reduction


PolyZorbe™ Polyester Acoustic Panel
EcoVerb™ Cotton Fiber Acoustic Panel
Acoustic Pro™ Anchorage Fabric Wrapped Panel

How to Soundproof a Cubicle

Implementing proper office soundproofing isn’t just a way to quiet annoying coworkers, it leads to increased worker satisfaction, better productivity, and helps protect private information. That said, it is a great way to help quiet annoying coworkers. There are 3 main strategies you should employ to effectively soundproof an open office, but let's start with some research on on open offices.

In a 20,000 participant and 142 building survey study done by the UC Berkeley Center for the Built Environment, we have a valuable window into the types of buildings that lead to the better worker satisfaction on two key acoustic dimensions: (1) overall noise level (2) speech privacy.

The first finding won't surprise anyone. Private offices > Shared Offices > Open Offices. If there's one thing worse than being a part of a conversation you'd rather avoid, it's being forced to listen to one you're not a part of. A second finding that's a little less intuitive is that people in open office plans without partitions were less dissatisfied than those in cubicles with partitions. Crazy right? We can only guess as to why the survey data is what it is. Possible reasons range from lower expectations for those in an office without partitions to workers being more sensitive to those around them when they can be seen as well as heard. Whatever the reason, the old phrase "perception is reality" feels like it fits.

private office vs open office noise level satisfaction
private office vs open office noise level satisfaction

Sound absorbing finishes

On the Ceiling

First, let's start with setting some expectations. You will never 100% soundproof a cubicle. The shared airspace makes it impossible. If you want something 100% soundproof, you need a closed office or to invest in some awesome noise cancelling headphones. All of the strategies described below are for mitigating sound, and keeping the open office in a tolerable range for productivity.

One strategy to help stop this is thick acoustic cloud ceiling panels to help absorb the sound so less noise is reflected. In addition you can install 2” thick baffles spaced 4 to 8 feet apart to help reroute sound waves. Like a bouncing ball, each time sound hits am absorptive surface it loses energy.

acoustic ceiling tiles and acoustic baffles absorb sound
acoustic ceiling tiles and acoustic baffles absorb sound

Be mindful of where you are placing lighting fixtures on your ceiling as poorly placed lighting can really reduce the level of speech privacy in your office. Usually commercial lighting consists of large, flat, hard material - as you may have guessed, this is really terrible at absorbing sound. The wrong lighting can affect noise levels by up to 10 decibels. You can combat this by choosing smaller fixtures and randomly staggering their placement rather than placing them directly above barriers.

You can avoid this altogether by using task-ambient lighting systems that eliminate all ceiling fixtures by using lighting integrated into the furniture which reflects off the ceiling and provides indirect ambient light. If you must have ceiling fixtures, opt for lights that are not completely flat to help with sound reflections. 

On Walls and Other Hard Surfaces

Identify windows and walls that are less than 20 feet from workstations as well as other large, hard surfaces like columns or metal cabinets are treated with sound absorbing materials. The goal is to reduce hard surfaces to minimize the amount of sound these surfaces will reflect. Implement sound absorbing panels approximately 2 to 6 feet off the ground on any reflective surfaces. For windows you can install thick sound-absorbing curtains that extend all the way to the floor (the curtains must be closed to be effective!). An alternative to curtains is using wide slat, perforated vertical blinds with sound absorbing cores. For additional sound absorption, install window wall baffles to interrupt reflections of sound. The principle for soundproofing walls is the exact same as the ceiling. Make the sound waves ricochet off more sound absorbing surfaces.

If there are workstations that are close to the wall, install a closure panel that extends the screens to the wall. You’d be surprised how much sound reflects off the wall around the screen. Extending the screen to the wall will help prevent sound from flanking around your screens.

Soundproofing cubicles is a challenge, and can never be 100% done due to the shared airspace, BUT you can make improvements with the right acoustical materials in the right places.

Electronic background masking

Install an electronic background masking noise and play it uniformly throughout the office. This often takes the form of white noise and shouldn’t exceed 50 dB, and should be as set as low as possible below that figure. As general guidance, as long as unwanted conversations are at least 10 dB below the background noise, almost no one is annoyed. Once these conversations are 5 dB above the background noise, almost everyone wants them to can it.

Although adding noise to a room sounds counter-intuitive, this low, unobtrusive sound acts as a blanket for the rest of the crowd noise happening in your office. Background noise should never exceed 50 dB! Any higher and people tend to raise their voice to speak over the masking noise, defeating the purpose of masking in the first place.

Encourage employees to adapt their workstations to make noise levels comfortable for themselves. Things like personal white noise machines and desk fans can help individuals create a comfortable sound environment. Noise cancelling headphones are the absolute most effective personal solution to sound blocking, and have the added benefit of signaling to coworkers that you’re busy!

Screens

If you do decide to go with partitions in your open office, you want to keep employees at least 6 feet from each other, but the more distance the better. At 6 feet a proper screen can interrupt the direct path of sound between workstations. An ideal screen is made of an airtight hardboard or aluminum foil core covered in two layers of open-weave, sound absorbing fabric (NRC rating > 0.80). The screen construction doesn’t need to have an STC rating any higher than 25 since sound will still be able to travel over the top and sides of the screen. You’re mainly trying to break line of site to stop the direct path for sound.

What’s an STC rating? What about NIC’?

An STC rating is a way to measure how much sound a partition, like a wall, can block. When measuring speech-isolation performance of a screen / ceiling combo, we actually use noise isolation class prime (NIC’). For help evaluating your open office design, you’ll need to contact us for a free consultation.

The larger your screen is the more effective it will be at blocking sound. Ideally your screen is twice as wide as it is tall. 4 foot screens are ineffective in an open office, so aim to use screens that are at least 5 feet and as tall as 6 feet. Remember that sound moves like water and will find any and all gaps, so make sure there are no gaps between the screen and the floor. If no gap isn’t possible, never allow more than 1”. In addition, carpeted flooring will help with sound absorption.

Use Cubicle Layout to Maximize Soundproofing

The absolute best way to combat sound is through distance, the farther you are from a noise, the harder it is to hear. In cubicles, to help with speech privacy, your goal should be to increase the distance between employees. This doesn’t necessarily mean bigger workstations. Find ways to place desks inside the workstation that not only increase distance between employees but also face them away from each other as to create a less direct path for sound when people are talking.

Cubicle configuration to best block noise
cubicle configuration to best block noise

Use this same creative thinking when setting up the cubicles themselves. Orient employees so that they face away from each other and away from the entryways to their cubicles. Create more distance by staggering cubicles rather than having them directly opposite each other. Not only will this increase speech privacy but will also help you determine how to reduce echo in a room. One of the most effective and low-cost ways to increase speech privacy is by simply breaking the line of sight between employees. As they say, out of sight, out of mind. By blocking employees' view of each other, not only will they feel like they have more privacy at their workstation, but they're less likely to be distracted and engage in conversation that would disrupt their coworkers.

BlocknZorbe that Cubicle Wall

One of the best tools for soundproofing a cubicle is BlocknZorbe, because it both blocks and absorbs sound. You can't solve cubicle noise problems 100%, but it's a useful tool to increase the amount of sound blocked by a barrier while also adding some needed absorption. Plus you can use it as a bulletin board! Give us a call to discuss your cubicle project if you want to discuss how BlocknZorbe may help.

  • One of the few acoustical materials with both an STC and NRC rating
  • Lightweight and easy to clean
  • Water resistant, impact resistance, and tackable
  • Charcoal and white color options

WE CAN HELP!

There are dozens of variables that can affect the needs for your open office space. The building, the type of work you do, the equipment in the office… it all can matter. We’d love to help you find solutions for your office. Contact us and we’ll ask you a few questions about the size of your space, the types of noise you’re dealing with, and the speech levels you’re aiming for. We can work with you to offer customized recommendations to turn your office into an audible oasis.

Have questions about your project?

Call us at 1.866.570.5440