Wearing headphones at work: time for HR to step-in?

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For one leading workplace commentator, the number one issue with allowing employees to wear headphones while they work is that they miss out on the incidental conversations buzzing around the office – and in turn, become disengaged from the company’s cultural atmosphere.

According to Anne Kreamer, former executive vice president for Nickelodeon turned author who explores emotion in the workplace, employees who listen to music at work are effectively extricating themselves from the workplace culture, and miss out on opportunities to contribute and advance. “Over the course of my earlier professional incarnations I worked in mission-driven organisations with more or less open office plans … where much of our successes were driven by the invisible but powerful sense of shared purpose generated by the news and information that was simply overheard,” Kreamer wrote in the Harvard Business Review. She said that had she frequently worn headphones, exclusively wired to the work in front of her, she would have not only missed out on important details, but the collective high that was experienced when a good piece of news rippled through. “The more I participated in the ambient, informal life of the office, the more committed I became to the work of the company. A company spirit formed and evolved, and I shared in it unconsciously and consciously,” Kreamer wrote.

What’s lost is the unconscious daily consumption of, and contribution to, the workplace dialogue. Kreamer gives an example of a scenario where a nearby person’s input would have been greatly valuable, but the collaboration didn’t occur simply because the nearby worker didn’t hear the exchange. “Every company must be configured to tap into a workforce's collective informal knowledge base as much as possible,” Kreamer said.

A study by management academics at the University of California looked at the relationship between employee isolation and organisational outcomes. In the age of emailing or instant-messaging the person over the cubical wall, the researchers found that workers with a predisposition to introverted behaviour were the most disadvantaged. “Because [employees] feel more estranged and less connected to co-workers, lonelier employees will be more likely to experience a lack of belongingness at work, thus decreasing their affective commitment to their organisations,” management professors Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik found.

Yet in weighing up the positives and negatives of headphones at work, for some employees it can make all the difference in getting in the right frame of mind for productive work. In Kreamer’s HBR article she cited one worker who told her she must wear headphones in order to get in a “get stuff done frame of mind”, and another who said listening to music made work ‘more fun’. Being able to wipe out the surrounding noise is important to some in order to get their work done.

At the end of the day, organisations must identify work-environments which encourage interaction, and cater for employees to access quiet workspaces when they need to. “How can you find the right balance? Accept the reality of our electronically networked workplaces and private digital media consumption. The new workforce, raised on perpetual multi-screen multi-tasking, would not be able to function well in a closed, 20th-century-style environment,” Kreamer said. Rather than creating unenforceable rules, employees and organisations should be helped to understand what's being lost in the process of being exclusively wired into their machines, she added.

  • Sean Reddell, Blaze Unlimited. on 10/01/2013 10:29:30 PM

    I get what Kreamer is saying about connecting to the culture but what about when the organisation is spread across several floors, buildings or countries? In those circumstances you'd want more than just the relationships in desks next to or near you to support the organisational culture. And my second thought is that it {the headphones off, open plan environment} is exclusively geared toward extroverted personality types.

    Perhaps a combination of open plan with quiet working space for complex tasks or those requiring concentration and deep thinking?

  • Chris on 13/01/2013 10:13:35 AM

    I find that some people will skip important conversations with people just because they are wearing headphones and don't want to interrupt them. My company created an iPhone app that helps with this. It looks over the shoulder of the person wearing the headphones and pauses their music when somebody comes into their cube. It is called iPauseMusic. That way we can listen to music at our desk without ignoring our co-workers.

  • Harley on 19/08/2013 3:17:47 PM

    I am one of those people who need to use music to get into the right frame of mind for certian tasks. Generally when producing KPI reports for example. When working with words though I need more quiet.

    In regards to extroverted / introverted, I don't think that will have an effect unless you are having extremely fast-paced conversations which may tire out your introverts while energising your extroverts. Some people however are easily distracted by visual or auditory stimulis. This would cause someone in an open plan to continually get distracted by people going past and conversations near him/her.

  • Nicole on 20/08/2013 2:41:01 PM

    Perhaps in smaller organisations this could be considered, however in large organisations if we were to rely on the assumption that each individual has heard/ is listening to office discussions or is fully focused on office chit-chat is delusional. Workers are being considerate by wearing headphones and not causing noise pollution to other workers, they should not be now ostricised for this. When will this end?

  • Alan Keys on 17/12/2013 3:28:17 PM

    Sorry, I wasn't paying attention.. I had my earphones on !!!

  • Jessica on 17/12/2013 4:52:27 PM

    I have a number of very chatty, noisy colleagues around me. It is rare for their conversations to be related to my work as it is usually about their son's new kitchen, daughter's dance concert or whinging about our external consultants. When I'm trying to write a complex formula or review a detailed report, I find the only way I can think is to block them out. Sometimes I put my headphones in with no music playing, just to make them a bit quieter!
    In saying this, I only wear head phones when the other members of my department are out of the office or busy in meetings - I don't want to seem unapproachable to them.

  • Jason Buchanan - Optimum Consulting on 16/01/2014 4:00:26 PM

    A very interesting topic indeed. I have been spending a lot of time looking at what Neuroscience is teaching us about our brains at work, and one of the stats that I came across is that it can take up to 25 minutes to get back into the concentration 'zone' after an interruption.

    Imagine a person with a heavy workload who was interrupted 10 times a day (the number is normally much higher), the impact on performance and frustration can be significant. However, the real fun comes when performance reviews occur - how many managers recogninse 'contribution to workplace culture and conversation' when other targets are not met? In my experience, if we encourage adults to be self-aware of how they are contributing, and when they or others need to concentrate, and to communicate this effectively, a nice balance can exist.

    The trick seems to be to work with the right people who are self-aware.

  • Ken on 7/05/2014 2:57:23 AM

    This is silly. If this was such a benefit to hear the buzz, then no one would need an office. Furthermore if the office buzz is so exponentially valuable, then the top executives would sit in open cubes constantly monitoring the office.

  • Jen B. on 11/07/2014 6:03:03 AM

    The fact that two of my co-workers here in my office have earphones plugged in means that I always I to tap their shoulder to get their attention because they are in another world. It is totally absurd to allow people to listen to music when they are working. They are paid to interact with others. I always feel like I'm interrupting them when they pull those plugs out. They never fail to give me a stunned look, as if I am bothering them. It is maddening!

  • Chris A. on 30/08/2014 6:37:05 AM

    But what about the co-workers that chew like dogs at their desks, munching away on their chips...I put headphones in otherwise I am so distracted I can't do a thing.

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