Ditch the Headphones at Work?

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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 [email protected].


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Alexandra (and Teri, thanks for posting Alexandra's article), as I sit hear reading your article while listenting to Taylor Swift's "Ronan" with my headphones on... I am (1) amazed you've had over 400 views of this article and no comments until now, how shy people are on this subject, that is very telling in and of itself, too bad... and (2) I sometimes listen to music at my desk at work (or when I am working at home, like now, 11:37 pm Tues. night) so I can concentrate, at the office especially, like you say, it blocks out all the conversations around me since I work in a cubicle and there can be as many as 4 different conversations going on around me. Even at home, I like to super-concentrate and even one conversation going on around me can be distracting, so if it comes down to a choice between shutting myself off into a closed door room at home or at work (which I can sometimes, but not always do) or putting on a pair of headphones (usually listening to one song play over and over again: Secret: my fav's at work are "Ordinary World" by Duran Duran which Laura of the OSCPA got me hooked on, and "Ruby Tuesday" by the Rolling Stones, I can listen to either one of those for literally hours, so I am not really focusing on the words which are constantly repeating, but the theme or the feeling which is constant, and separates me from everything else going on around me, so I can concentrate on my work. Anyway, thanks for posting this and I agree, like the authors of the R.O.W.E. books (Results-Only-Work-Environment) say, its about doing what you need to do, when and where and how you need to do it, to get the results - as you say, its the results that count. Thanks for writing, and I hope you get more than 1 comment per 400 readers of this excellent article!!

I used to never wear headphones or listen to music at work. In our office there are a lot of different things going on, and without headphones, I found it difficult to concentrate on my own work. But I hesitated to wear headphones because I didn't want people to avoid coming into my office to discuss work items, and also didn't want to be surprised when people would walk up behind me while I was wearing my headphones. So, I had my company develop an iPhone app called iPauseMusic. It is a music player, but it uses the camera to watch over my shoulder and pause my music whenever someone comes into my office. Now everybody with an iPhone in my company uses it. We get to listen to our music without ignoring our co-workers. I have been really enjoying the rediscovery of my music collection and am more productive than ever.

I could not disagree with this article more. Headphones in the workplace of a professional organization are the sign of lack of management, professionalism and respect for one's own career. It may be appropriate for the mail room guy or janitorial staff but for paid professionals that want to advance at a company, I feel they are making a terrible decision.

For executives with their own offices, I'm sure some background music can be appropriate but for the regular staff, a clear company policy is needed.

Thank you for this debate.Juan: I don't buy your argument that it's appropriate for an executive but not "regular staff." Does one have to reach executive level to be able to do two things simultaneously? Chris: your app sounds amazing. If you haven't put it on the app store, you should seriously consider selling it. I am sure folks would pay for something that cool. -Alexandra

Thanks for the compliment on the app. Yes, it is in the Apple App store, just search for iPauseMusic. There is a free version and a pay version with no ads.

I agree that there shouldn't be different expectations for executive and "regular staff" regarding music use. People with a private office just happen to not need headphones to play their music. That shouldn't mean that people sitting in their cube shouldn't listen to their music.

For me, I don't mind at all if my staff wears headphones while they work as long as they are very easy to interrupt so I don't feel awkward getting their attention. (which is why people use iPauseMusic).

Much good has been said. For me, 1) music helps filter out the noise of the office, 2) keeps me motivated, and 3) helps me establish a sense of "ritual space" akin to putting on armor for doing battle, or getting up for the game. In my case, it's classical music, and not the easy listening stuff, but the music goes deep. I have noticed, particularly when I'm deep in concentration, that a brief interruption ("It will only be a minute.....") translates into several minutes to resume and re-establish the line of thought..

Andrea: I think the introvert/extrovert topic is one worth deeper exploration about handing different work styles within the same peer group. Very good point! -Alexandra

This strikes as a concern only of those who have to be in control of everything all the time. Lighten up. If the employee is getting their work done, headphones aren't an issue.

So ipods came along and all of a sudden no body can be productive without their favorite music playing throughout the day. Please give me a break!
Learn to concentrate! Sometimes we need to grab people's shoulders or throw something at them to get their attention at our workplace when we need to discuss work related matters. People should be listening to their favorite pod casts in their own time not while they are being paid to achieve tasks that involves others input in an office environment.