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

It’s a fine-line between communicating optimal work conditions to employees, and coming across as the fun police. But new evidence suggests allowing headphones could dent the bottom line.

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.

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