Can Better Acoustics Make Open Offices Suck Less?

Please say yes.

If you’re not familiar with the problems of open offices by now, you probably have a door to close at work. Open offices are supposed to promote employee interaction, and to some extent they do, but the drawbacks are well-documented.


These environments stress out workers. And distract their attention. And drain their motivation. And remove their privacy. There’s a little to like, and a lot to hate.

The biggest complaints made by open-office employees relate to hearing, and to being heard. A study from last fall reported “sound privacy” to be the greatest grievance by far among open-office workers, with general “noise level” not far behind. Other research has shown that noise distraction results in twice as much wasted time in open offices, compared to private ones. This isn’t just a matter of worker satisfaction; productivity is at stake.

It turns out that background noise messes with our minds–especially when that noise is a person’s voice, and especially when that noise is a person’s voice on the phone. These so-called “halfalogues,” in which we only overhear one side of a conversation, are so infuriatingly unpredictable that our brains can’t focus on much else. And in an open office, phone calls in nearby cubicles happen all the time.

Many open-office workers solve the noise problem with headphones, but with apologies to Dr. Dre and Bose, that seems like a poor solution. Doesn’t a room full of covered ears undermine the very communal purpose of the open layout? Wouldn’t it be better if designers created acoustical settings that dampen open office background noise enough for workers to get some actual work done?

Some new evidence suggests that’s a tall order. A study out of Finland recently tested the impact of background noise in several different open-office designs, built with varying degrees of sound-absorption. The problem always came back to the cubicle next door. While certain designs mitigated noise from across the room quite effectively, none could “sufficiently decrease the distraction caused by speech from adjacent desks.”


Let’s take a closer look at what the researchers discovered. Below is a diagram of the experimental open office used for the study. The test room scores high for realism: It had four stations with three cubes each. Test participants sat at desks with computers. Meanwhile, a speaker playing a voice recording was situated at the corner of each station–simulating a colleague who’s talking.

With this setup in place, the researchers then outfitted the test office with different acoustic designs. In one scenario, no absorption devices or masking sound was used, so the background speech from the speakers could be heard across the room. In a second scenario, ceiling and wall absorbents soaked up a lot of the noise. In a third, a masking sound (filtered pink noise) was added to the absorbents, significantly reducing the background voices.

Under these conditions, test participants completed a series of cognitive tasks at their cubicles. The researchers expected task performance to improve in the open offices with better acoustic design. To their surprise, that wasn’t always the case.

Take the results of a relatively simple memory task that asks participants to recall numbers presented on a screen, in their original order. Participants in the open office with no absorption or masking devices actually did better on this task than those in either of the other two acoustically friendly design scenarios. (Those in a completely quiet setting scored the best.) Our rough chart of the data:

Some of the results were more encouraging; on one complex memory task, for instance, performance increased marginally as more background noise was masked or absorbed. Participants said they felt less disturbed as acoustic design improved–an effect that was strongest for those who considered themselves sensitive to noise. But on the whole, the effect of acoustic design on cognitive performance was “somewhat weaker than expected,” the researchers concluded.

The results make sense to anyone who’s spent time in an open office. Sure, great acoustic design can reduce the noise coming from across the room. But what can really be done about the colleague in the next cube over? Not much. One of the study’s most telling results came when researchers asked test participants to rate the source of their distraction. Speech from across the room wasn’t a problem for those in the best office (acoustically speaking) but speech from nearby still was.


As far as the researchers are concerned, adjacent cubicle noise means “that the acoustic problems resulting from unwanted speech in open-plan offices cannot be solved by room acoustic design alone.” That doesn’t make everything hopeless. There are ways to reconfigure open offices for enhanced privacy–chiefly, by providing quiet areas or rooms for phone calls or small meetings.

More and more, though, it seems like the best way to design an open office is to design an office that isn’t really open.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).