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

Do headphones help employees to focus and maximise productivity?

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

by Edward Cranswick

Wearing headphones at work is an often-tempting option for workers, and can indeed be useful to assist concentration. With workers so much more plugged in than ever, headphones are a way to help manage the constant flow of information and stimulation coming from all directions. As Rob Walker writes in The New York Times:

Headphones and earbuds have of course become exponentially more popular at work as the so-called “open plan” office has spread. Even if collaboration or connection results from that obliteration of workers’ privacy, sometimes we all need to block out everything (and everyone) and concentrate. Thus, as others have observed … [for many people] headphones are the new walls.

And as Sue Shellenbarger reported in 2012 for The Wall Street Journal:

The trend toward open office design, with low or no partitions and lots of glass walls, can increase distractions and has made headphones more popular. Projected 2012 unit sales of headphones and earphones are up 41% since 2008, the Consumer Electronics Association says, and many of those new purchases will wind up at the office.

The upside of wearing headphones at work
For many people, headphones are a way of regaining some of the privacy that has been lost in the modern world’s move towards ever-greater openness and communication in workplace settings. Sometimes, some people just really need to concentrate, and would prefer not to be interrupted. Headphones not only screen out potentially distracting noise, but also indicate to others that you are immersed in a task and probably wish to work undisturbed.

Some people may be more sensitive to disturbances in their concentration than others. Shellenbarger reports on one study looking at the effects of listening to music in the workplace:

A third study of 89 students ages 19 to 28, led by researchers at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, found that workers who either loved or hated music being played where they were working scored lowest on tests of attention, compared with workers who didn't have strong feelings about the music or who worked in rooms without music. People naturally pay more attention to music they strongly like or dislike, hurting their ability to focus, the study says.

In the same way, we can assume that different people will be more or less likely to be irritated or distracted by conversations being carried on around them in the workplace. Even if they’re not irritated, compelling conversations may still detract from performance of the task at hand, even if joining the conversation might be fruitful for achieving other workplace goals.

The downside of wearing headphones at work
But there is solid evidence for the negative ramifications of listening to music with lyrics at work. Shellenbarger cites Robert Desimone, then director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, whose studies show that music with lyrics (at least lyrics that are in a language the worker understands) detracts from a person’s ability to concentrate.

The prefrontal cortex, the brain's control center, must work harder to force itself not to process any strong verbal stimuli, such as catchy lyrics, that compete with the work you're attempting, Dr. Desimone says. The more cognitive work required to screen out unwanted input, the fewer cognitive resources remain for the task at hand. And the longer you try to concentrate amid competing distractions, the worse your performance is likely to be. "Attention takes mental effort, and we can get mentally tired," he says.

Not only that, but headphones are often a perception issue, according to Shellenbarger, who notes that a 2010 survey of 1400 chief information officers by Robert Half technology revealed that wearing earbuds or headphones caused resentment among co-workers and was seen as “a major office-etiquette problem”.

And if that wasn’t enough, writing in Harvard Business Review, author Anne Kreamer (formerly Executive Vice President, Worldwide Creative Director, for Nickolodeon and Nick at Nite) writes that one of the biggest problems of headphones in the office is the loss of spontaneous creativity, exchange of ideas, and common purpose that comes with having natural free-flowing conversations in the workplace.

Over the course of my earlier professional incarnations I worked in mission-driven organizations with more or less open office plans — Sesame Street, SPY magazine, Nickelodeon — 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. If I’d had headphones on, exclusively aware of the work in front of me, I would have missed out on important details, let alone 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.

A young person Kreamer interviewed told her that headphones had never caused them to miss “something urgent”. But Kreamer claims that it is exactly the things that might not seem urgent that foster an overall atmosphere of creativity and productivity: “It’s just that kind of loss of daily osmotic information exchange and collaborative bonding that ought to concern 21st century employees and employers. It’s about information exchange, resource exchange, idea generation and on and on.”

Kreamer also draws attention to the fact that headphones close down the lines of communication that would enable companies to capitalise on ideas that are not being discovered or channelled through the routine tasks an employee is asked to do:

Companies also lose some of the opportunity to have employees contribute new ideas that might be percolating within the larger culture but under the radar of the organization. Because actionable cultural knowledge is now so diffuse, to remain competitive companies need all employees to bring fresh thinking into the workplace.

How should HR manage headphones use at the office?
So how do we strike that balance between impeding an employee’s individual productivity, when they need to work in isolation, and impeding the overall work atmosphere of collegiality, creativity, and common purpose?

When and how should HR intervene?

Kreamer says that “organizations need to develop protocols that avoid making isolation the universal default office norm, and that encourage face-to-face interaction.” To this end, it’s a good idea to schedule relaxation and downtime among employees that enables them to talk freely and openly exchange ideas with their co-workers.

Rather than creating unenforceable rules, employees and organizations should be helped to understand what’s being lost in the process of mindless, unplanned mass capitulation to the machines. Create working environments that encourage physical interaction; have small lunches that cut across hierarchical levels; include people who tend to shy away from group activities to participate in the softball team or fantasy football or Oscar pools. And keep managing by walking around, even though text-messaging and email seem to make real-world encounters unnecessary.

Scheduling work activities allows an organisation to foster creativity and idea-exchange directed towards the organisation’s overall goals and vision without limiting workers’ thinking to any one particular task. Team activities and bonding exercises help everyone to focus on the big picture. But it also means workers can silo themselves for allotted portions of the day when they believe it necessary to achieve the task at hand.

If an employee who wears headphones all the time is annoying you, or preventing you from easily communicating with them, then you need to speak to that employee regarding communication strategies that will keep both of you satisfied. Walker writes that in such a situation a manager should “clearly communicate this thought: I need to be able to approach you for quick work conversations; what’s the best way to get your attention when you’ve got headphones on?”

He continues:

But try to strike a balance. While it may be annoying to deal with a headphone-wearer, it’s also annoying to have little to no privacy. Handle some communication with messaging, and insist on maintaining some face-to-face contact. If things move too far in one direction, adjust. Keep the lines of communication open.

The modern workplace is dynamic, and demands different modes of attention at different times. Sometimes headphones will help employees channel their energy and focus to carry out a particular task. But it’s important that there are frequent periods during the work cycle open for free-flowing communication and cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Banning headphones altogether would probably be unproductive. But you still need to strike that balance.


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