Headphone Wearing Employees - Lonely or Focused?

BlogHer Original Post

I never realized there was such a furor over wearing headphones in the workplace beyond the disagreements I regularly encountered with managers when I worked in an office. Apparently, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article (Workers, Take Off Your Headphones), headphone wearing employees are missing out and causing an untold drain on employers. Who knew?

I can remember my days in the corporate cubicle. One of the few saving graces I had were my headphones. They allowed me to stay engaged when I was bored at work, focus on important tasks when there were ambient distractions, and meet my need as an introvert to recharge with alone time. Now I'm not saying that coming to the office, plugging in your headphones, and checking out by connecting only with your buddies outside work via IM and social media is the way to create a productive career or meet your obligations as an employee. Yet, there can be great value to utilizing the power of a pair of headphones.

In the HBR article:

My informal survey of a dozen people I know under the age of 35, working in a range of desk jobs, all in the U.S. — law firms, big entertainment companies, small start-ups, publishing houses — revealed that whatever the design of their office spaces, most younger people in our increasingly post-telephonic office world wear headphones about half of the time they're working.

This doesn't sound nearly as problematic to me as the rest of the article states. If you read it fully it sounds like innovation, opportunities, and relationships are going untended because someone wears headphones during the work day. I know how important it is to overhear different things in the office that you might not catch in any other way. Yet, if you're always half-listening to the din around you, how are you supposed to focus? To the author's credit she at least mentions an upside (one I knew quite well during my years in the cube):

Headphones can operate as a visual "do not disturb, I'm working" signal for employees who, in open-plan offices, need solitude in order to execute their work. As one interviewee told me, her headphones "put me in a 'get stuff done' frame of mind" and others reported that headphones made them "more focused" and that work was "more fun." Being able to achieve that sense of solitude when necessary is clearly important.

The article created its fair share of commentary. The article Four Important Communication Lessons from Internet “Trolls”, while focused on dealing with Internet trolls, lends some good point and counterpoint to the HBR article and some worthwhile lessons on how to have productive conversations about compelling topics online and off.

One thing that is totally overlooked in this article is the fact that one size does not fit all. I don't care about the trends toward and open workplace and cubeless offices. Yes collaboration is crucial. And, for some...the highly sensitive person or those chart-topping "I's" (introverts) on the Myers-Briggs like myself, this kind of environment destroys productivity, creativity, and collaboration. I personally love collaborating with others yet if I don't get "alone" time, I shut down. How does that benefit employer or employee? In a crowded workplace full of distractions, headphones can be a rare oasis for many. Fortunately for me, I now rule my own workspace.

NPR asks the question - As Headphones Invade the Office, Are We Lonelier?. Asserting that headphones are being used more and more not just to focus but also to tune others out. The absurdity of it all is that people now use global technology to get the attention of the person sitting in the cubicle next to them:

"I just have some headphones on," she says. "I get in the zone with Spotify and sometimes people have to wave their hand in front of me."

Alyssa Galella sits just two seats away. She's trying to get Gore's attention the old-fashioned way. Gore eventually notices, but if she hadn't, Galella would have sent an instant message — yes, from two seats away.

I have to believe there is a healthy balance to be had. Blaming the headphones is like blaming the newspaper circa 1980 for people wasting time at work.

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology loves technology but asserts that technology leaves us hiding from ourselves. Watch her Tedx video "Connected, but Alone?" for some compelling insights about being alone together. The paradox of being somewhere while also yearning to be elsewhere. It is a very compelling talk that looks far beyond the headphone controversy and into the bigger conversation about how the world is changing and exchanging real intimacy for the illusion of connectedness.

Would love your thoughts - what has been your experience with headphones in the workplace? What is your takeaway from the Turkle video?

headphones in the workplace

Credit Image: Ted'sBlog via Flickr


Paula Gregorowicz is a life and business strategist who helps women that want to live their true calling by building a successful service based business without the all the self-doubt, struggle, and overwhelm.

Download the Free Report: Your Own Uniqueness: The Path to Purpose, Prosperity, and Playfulness at http://www.thepaulagcompany.com.

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