Ditch the Headphones at Work?

By Alexandra DeFelice

Should employees be allowed to wear headphones while they work?
This debate has surfaced at least once a month among accounting professionals for the past two or three years, typically during multigenerational discussions around the issue of productivity.
The anti-headphone argument typically goes something like this:
"People these days and their headphones. They can't possibly work and listen to music."
Why not? Are they dancing around the office and singing at the top of their lungs instead of preparing tax returns?
When I need to really concentrate, I listen to smooth jazz. (I'm doing it as I write this article.) If I have no music, I tend to listen to all the conversations and related noise around me and find it difficult to focus on the issue at hand.
That being said, I understand why some managers might see a younger employee bopping around visibly listening to music and growing suspicious that the employee isn't concentrating.
But here's the thing: When I have to do tasks that require less innovation (think basic administrative duties that most professionals have to do at least once in a while, such as scanning), listening to music with lyrics I enjoy brightens my mood and speeds up the task at hand.
Sometimes I find myself putting on my headphones without even launching my music player just to set the tone – pun intended – that I'm working on an important task and don't want to be interrupted.
This week, while searching through my LinkedIn connection's recent activities, I noticed a post from Andrea Ballard, an HR consultant and career coach who previously worked as human resources director at Peterson Sullivan, a Moore Stephens firm in Seattle. Her post led to an article entitled Headphones at work: yea or nay? by Allison Ellis posted on NWjobs (a source for Seattle area jobs and career tools and a service of the Seattle Times Company). 
The article provided arguments on both ends of the spectrum about music's impact on productivity. But I particularly liked Ballard's recollections of her own negative views when Peterson Sullivan's employees wore headphones: "I thought it was rude and dismissive, and indicated a lack of interest in getting to know their colleagues," the article quotes Ballard as saying. 
But then, Ballard got a different perspective after talking to an employee who sat near the women's restroom. Ballard said, "All day long, people would stop at her cube and say hi. Wearing headphones gave her some much-needed privacy and the ability to concentrate on her job." 
Still worried grooving on the job will impact productivity? Measure results.
If employees seem to really enjoy working under the influence of the Top 40, and you suspect they're not performing up to par, give them a day, a week of freedom to perform their regular tasks under "their" terms. Then, if the results aren't satisfactory, go back to business as usual, with a twist. Clearly, there's something distracting them while working. Discuss alternative agreements so they can feel as though they can concentrate on the work at hand without introducing different distractions. Maybe this means alternative work schedules (come in earlier, stay later when less people are around); working from home; or performing a different type of work within the firm.
Or perhaps the firm needs to reevaluate how many people are crammed into a single space and expected to work in a complete state of oblivion to the constant conversations taking place within spitting distance, while the managers are working undistracted in their corner offices, regardless of whether their doors are open or shut.
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About the author:
Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at adefelice@msnainc.org.

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