Should You Wear Headphones In The Office?

Should You Wear Headphones In The Office?

Brothers Alex (Gizmodo) and Angus (Lifehacker) work in the same pod at Allure Media. Alex spends much of the working day listening to music through his headphones; Angus never does. Which approach is better for productivity? Gizmodo and Lifehacker duke it out.

Picture by star5112

LIFEHACKER: Observant readers will know that I’ve been at Lifehacker for nearly four years now (yikes!), but it had only been for the last year that I’ve worked full-time in the office. For me, one of the big benefits of being on site is the ability to interact with other members of the team: discussing story ideas, overhearing gossip, and helping to solve problems. So for that simple reason, I’ve never gone down the “plug in some headphones and get on with your job” route.

I can’t pretend this is an approach everyone adopts. Turning around right now, I can see that Mark and Alex are buried in their headphones. To me, that represents a lot of missed opportunities. So I’ll ask (in a non-judging way): why do you do it?

GIZMODO: Because you can’t stop the music…

Or, more seriously, while I do get the team vibe and need to be in the office, an open-plan office of the style used at Allure is a noisy place. There’s conversations, cackling, televisions running awards shows and a million other distractions. I don’t wear my headphones every minute of the working day, but when I’ve got some serious concentrating to do, I find it helpful. And then there’s the question of differing musical tastes…

LIFEHACKER: That can be a challenge. There’s an office-wide Sonos music system playing at a discrete volume, and I quite enjoy the mixed selection. On the other hand, when Lady Antebellum comes on and the Sugar team sings along en masse, earplugs do seem desirable.

Of course, even in workplaces which don’t have music playing (which I guess is most of them), earphones are still common. Back when you worked from a home office, were you also a big headphone fan? Or did you like tall speakers and wall speakers, but most of all loud speakers?

GIZMODO: I frequently worked at home with headphones, and for two very simple reasons.

Firstly, I have children. Kids are naturally noisy creatures, and noise of that style can equal an easy distraction.

OK, not every workplace will have children in it — and those that do generally require you to pay attention to the kids, not your choice of tunes. But choice is the other factor, and it’s one you’ve touched on yourself. My music tastes aren’t the same as the rest of the office, and while there’s something very democratic about the office Sonos system and its ever-evolving playlist, it’s also rather jarring to have a request for dirty pictures being made fifty times a day when I’m trying to concentrate!

Whereas with headphones I can listen to my own music, and I do find it’s an aid to concentration and often creativity. When I worked at home it was easier (and sometimes more child-appropriate) for me to slip on headphones and listen to something I liked than it was to blast it all over the place.

Flipping the issue on its head, though, I’m a little surprised by one thing. I’ve got admittedly limited tastes and artists I follow, whereas you own more CDs than . . . anyone. Ever. Seriously, even if you moved abroad for six years, you’d come home and your CD collection would have mated to form new compilations. And yet you choose not to listen to music in the office save for through the office Sonos system — which sits right near me and nowhere near you. (That’s probably also a reason why I wear headphones’ I physically cannot avoid what’s on the Sonos save for turning it down, which I rarely do.)

So given you’re clearly a lover of music, are there reasons why you wouldn’t wear headphones?

LIFEHACKER: The answer is — largely — habit. When I worked at home, I often had music going, but it was invariably blasting through speakers. That was partly because I lived alone and so I didn’t need to worry about anyone objecting to my taste in music:

But it was also because headphones are a nuisance when the phone rings: either you don’t notice in the first place, or you scramble to remove them and grab the handset in time. It just seemed like too much unnecessary hassle.

My headphones do come out (right now, I’m still favouring the O’Neill Stretch when I’m transcribing, or if I’m walking (which I do rather a lot of). But outside of those contexts, I’m just not a headphone guy.

There are occasions when music is a useful way of helping me to focus. If I need a burst of energy and focus, there are a few failsafe go-to tracks and albums I can use:

But on the whole, what I learned when I first started doing #NaNoWriMo a couple of years back still holds true: I can work anywhere, regardless of the distractions. So mostly that’s what I do.

GIZMODO: See, the headphone/phone problem doesn’t hit me too hard, largely because I take most calls on my mobile, and my headphones have an in-line microphone. But that’s very much a taste thing, I suppose. I can work anywhere, anytime as you can, but I do find when I need focus, blocking the rest of the world out and having a beat to work to is highly useful.

Except maybe for that bit of music.

Are headphones an essential part of your work environment, or do you prefer hearing what’s happening in the office? Tell us in the comments.


  • In our office, headphones are a virtual closed office door.
    We’re open plan and i do like the idea of eavesdropping on others’ conversations. I’ve learnt heaps from this. But when I’ve got a big task ahead and I need to shut myself off, headphones are the go.
    I get distracted less and everyone else sees it as a DND on the door. Around here, if you get someone to take their headphones out, you’d better have a good reason.

  • Having just started work in an open space office with music running that isnt to my taste ive found headphones to be a must, although i do tend to have one ear not on correctly so i can still hear anything going on in the office, and can perform a quick removal if im needed, works ideally for my smaller office enviroment and im not the only one that does it either if that says anything

  • We have one member of the office with a more…aged… taste in music. Funnily enough, he’s the loudest guy in the office, so we all have to hear about it when something isn’t to his taste.
    The solution here is what we have tagged as “going into the zone”, in the form of putting on headphones and blocking out the cacophony. Works a treat!

  • I put a thick black pillow case over my head, completely covering my face, neck and part of my shoulders. Initially there were comments from co-workers and a discussion with my manager, but after I pointed out improvements in productivity (with the screen brightness on my computer turned way up so I could see only my monitor, and a phone headset on over the top, it works just fine), I have never been as focussed. One tip, you can cut a mouth hole in the ‘work sack’ so you don’t have to take it off or lift it up when eating lunch at your desk. This also means people can get a better idea of what mood you’re in (smiling, frowning, etc). You may want to overlock the edge of the mouth hole so it doesn’t fray/unravel. Hope this helps.

      • Let me also add that if someone interrupts me while I work, I shriek wildly, strip off (down to nothing but the pillowcase) and perform an improvised fertility dance on my desk. This also tends to discourage people I work with from impacting my productivity. This only really happens when someone new starts, I suspect my colleagues actively encourage new employees to engage with me in this disruptive way, but I can’t be sure. Needless to say, except for Friday afternoons, this is usually a once-off thing for most of the people here.

  • Just changed jobs into a new department within the same company, and I generally start work an hour before most people arrive. I nearly always have my headphones in when no one else is around, but generally take them out for a bit when everyone else arrives.

    Once the initial catch up discussions are over and I have a task that I will need to concentrate on I often put them back in. Like fury-s12 I will have one ear not quite pushed in all the way so I can hear someone call my name without them having to yell.

  • i generally only listen in one ear, i find that way if someone starts talking to me i hear the first part of the sentance so they dont have to repeat it. If i really have something to do i put on earphones but i find people get a little odd in this office compaired to previous offices about it.

  • I would quit if I wasn’t able to wear headphones. My open office is just too noisy. I did have to mount a car blind spot mirror to the edge of my monitor to cut down on heart attacks caused by people coming up behind me.

  • I want to wear headphones at my new workplace.

    Not to listen to anything, I don’t have anything to listen to. I just want to keep my ears warm in the icy air conditioning.

  • I have headphones but have found more recently that I’m not working on tasks that I can just focus on fully. I have on a number of occasions put them on and left the music off, it’s amazing the conversations that go on around you when people think you aren’t listening or can’t hear.

  • A colleague once said that music helps satisfy the part of herself that wants to be distracted by something so she didn’t get distracted by other stuff. I’m inclined to agree.

    When I worked in a cube-farm a lot, I got some active noise-cancelling phones to just trim out the sound of the aircon and the server. I’m sure it reduced my stress levels.

  • Wow, I could never be productive while listening to music. My brain homes in on the music and follows it, and so much for whatever else I was trying to do whilst the music was playing. On the other hand, random talk radio or news programs – THOSE provide uninteresting background noise I can ignore while working.
    For anyone looking for a bit of noise isolation without having to turn on music, I suggest the $99 multi-color headphones being sold by Myer right now. Unlike the cheapest computer headphones, they actually do block out a good portion (but not all) of office noise, and look cool and less anti-social than heavier headphones or earplugs.

  • There have been a few journals publish research suggesting that fundamentally, humans can’t actually multitask. They just switch focus rapidly sometimes to move from one task to another. The suggestion from some of that research is that when you listen to music while working, you’re not really focusing on work if you’re noticing the music – you’re switching attention rapidly from one to the other and that consumes energy and diminishes focus, or you’re tuning out the music so it just becomes white noise. Like a more comfortable kind of silence. But if that’s all you want, you’re probably better off playing white noise through headphones rather than music – otherwise you’ll periodically slip and focus on the music instead of just using it to block distractions.

    I’ve seen some researches suggest that the focus transition is actually a creativity aid though. So while you’re rapidly switching focuses, it actually makes you more creative with the task that you’re actively progressing with. I find that with my own experience, it holds roughly true. Music will help with my creativity and problem solving. But I get more actual work done without it.

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