Ask LH: How Can I Get My Boss To Let Me Wear Headphones At Work?

Ask LH: How Can I Get My Boss To Let Me Wear Headphones At Work?

Dear Lifehacker, I work in an open office environment, and I’d really like to put on my headphones and focus to some music while I work. I’m worried my coworker or boss might think I’m isolating myself, or not being a “team player” though. How can I explain I’m trying to be productive without coming off like I’m being defensive? Sincerely, In The Zone

Picture: Tina Mailhot-Roberge, Cheon Fong Liew, fredsharples, woozie2010

Dear In The Zone,

Not every workplace has that culture where working while listening to music is the norm. Some places insist on the kind of environment where anyone can talk to anyone at any time. At the same time, wearing headphones while you work doesn’t have to mean that you’re isolated, and can be your message that you’re actually being productive. I’ve worked in both types of environments, and here are some tips to help you.

Choose the Right Headphones for the Office

Ask LH: How Can I Get My Boss To Let Me Wear Headphones At Work?

First, you have to choose the right pair of headphones for the type of office environment you’re in. For example, if you’re trying to unobtrusive and stealthy, a pair of unassuming in-ear monitors (IEMs) or earbuds may be the best way to go. You don’t have to sacrifice good sound either — here are some suggestions.

If IEMs aren’t your style or hurt your ears, on-ear or over-ear headphones are a better choice. Whichever model you choose, make sure they’re “closed-back/” headphones. This means they won’t leak sound while you listen, and your office neighbours won’t be forced to listen to your music.

Finally, you might consider a pair of noise-cancelling or noise-isolating headphones to block out the ambient noise of your surroundings. We wouldn’t suggest you advertise their noise-minimising properties if appearances are important, but a good pair will leak as little sound as possible and will block out external noise so you can focus.

Talk to Your Boss and Nearby Colleagues

Ask LH: How Can I Get My Boss To Let Me Wear Headphones At Work?

If headphones aren’t the norm at your office, gather a little intelligence first. Ask the coworkers that sit near you if they’d be bothered if you wore them. Let them know that you’re still available if they need you, and that you’re not trying to wall yourself off — just that you focus better with a little music in your day. Odds are they won’t care, and they will be able to tell you if other people in the office wear headphones while they work too.

Past that, don’t forget to ask your boss. If you really do think that there’s some kind of unwritten rule against headphones, address it up front. Let your boss know that you concentrate better this way, and that your goal is to be productive, not isolate yourself. You can even point them to research that notes a little isolation can be good for focus. Of course, you should also explain that you don’t plan on wearing them all the time, and you don’t want to inadvertently cut yourself off from your team. After all, at many companies, headphones are the new walls.

Over at StackExchange, user enderland responded to a question similar to yours:

This is a good thing to be aware of, because you are right, in an office culture where 100% of people do anything – whether not wearing headphones, taking lunch at a certain time, wearing red polos, whatever – there is always a bit of a social weirdness which happens when someone breaks the mould.

I would recommend some simple conversations ahead of time:

  • Ask your manager something like, “I’ve noticed no one here really wears headphones when they work. I find I can focus much better when doing so – would this be problematic?”
  • If there are a lot of younger people at your workplace, I suspect many of them are wondering the same thing. Bringing this topic up with them (assuming you have some level of friendship) might cause a chain reaction.
  • Briefly mention to your team they are free to interrupt you for work related but you are wearing them because they help you work, “hey guys, I think I’m going to be wearing headphones to help me work – I just want to let you know, feel free to interrupt me even if I’m wearing them.”

I strongly suspect no one is going to actually care about this. But simply by informing others you can avoid a lot of the stigma.

We’re assuming you work in an open office — the kind where “interaction” and “collaboration” are prized, even though studies have shown again and again that they’re the most unproductive office setups possible. Make the case that you’re blocking out noise and chatter so you can be productive. Focus on that angle, and you’ll be OK.

Keep Your Headphone Wearing to Focus Sessions Away from Your Desk

Ask LH: How Can I Get My Boss To Let Me Wear Headphones At Work?

If wearing headphones just draws too much attention, or someone tells you it’s outright banned, consider taking your work somewhere else for a little while where you can wear your headphones in peace.

For example, if you work from a laptop, block off a small portion of your calendar — maybe an hour or two — and camp out in an unused conference room where you’re away from your colleagues and free to wear your headphones without worry. My last job had “huddle rooms” designed partially for this purpose, and it wasn’t uncommon to see someone with a deadline approaching camped out in one. If you can’t bring a little focus to your desk, take your desk to a place that lets you focus.

We hope these tips help — you never know, you may just be the first person who really wanted to wear headphones on your team. Being the first person to do anything always comes with a little awkwardness, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed, especially if it will help your productivity. After all, you are there to be judged on your results, not your appearances, right? Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • It depends on WHY there is a no headphone rule – perhaps find that out first.

    In my case, I was in this exact same situation, and finding out the reason was “you can’t hear the phone ring if your listening to headphones” I brought a pair of over-ear open back headphones into work. At lower volume levels, someone would have to be sitting at the same desk as you to hear it, and there aren’t too many workplaces where people are packed in like passengers on an aircraft.

    (Sometimes the ambient noise in this place is too high for open-back headphones anyway – just an office environment – where it’s common for a dozen or more people to be having 6 conversations at once)

    I now have a 3 year old pair of Audio Technica AD700’s sitting on my desk and I’ve been very happy with them as a choice. There is a new model the AD700X which is more aesthetically pleasing and I might upgrade.

    A little education to people who are unsure whether I’ll hear them if they talk to me sorts that problem out very quickly.

    Be careful about the type of headphones you pick – you don’t want a lot of thumping bass while your at work – don’t get me wrong i’m a basshead from way back and you will often find me listening to dnb walking into work – but high end bass at work will make it that much harder for you to hear anyone else around you (unless that is what you want).

    I’ve also taken notice of LH’s previous advice to listen to music you never normally listen to at work, and I no longer usually listen to rave music at work 😛

    Anyway, since I had to battle it out with a management that banned the use of headphones, it’s amazing what a change of management can do (and I didn’t have to wait long either). These days we are encouraged to wear headphones at our desk if we need to concentrate on something that needs to get done.

  • change jobs cause your at a crap company… with stupid rules. with all the technology out there not allowing your staff to do this is just silly.

  • Show them the hundreds of studies that show that open plan offices are incredibly detrimental to productivity, and that despite their intuition does not improve team communications. Then ask for a private office, and let them negotiate you down to wearing headphones.

  • This is contradictory advice, but if you want to wear headphones to isolate yourself, be aware enough of your surroundings so you can take them off to talk to people who approach you. I know you want to wear them to concentrate and not be disturbed, but people who feel you aren’t aware that they need your attention for something specific will have a problem with you.

  • I’m one of those who can’t handle hearing others’ “music” at work. I don’t care if you want to listen to music, and are somehow (I have no idea how) able to concentrate at all, let alone concentrate better than without them, when using them. Each to their own. However, understand that it does completely break some others’ concentration if we hear your music leaking from your headphones, and we feel put out and apologetic when we even have to ask you to turn it down by half so that we can get our work done.

    Perhaps their office rule is meant to avoid recurring (because it’s never just one day that you have to ask) awkward interpersonal situations like that. It may be that it’s as much a consideration for others rule as “don’t eat smelly food at your desk”.

  • I’m in an open-plan office, and would go mental without headphones. Constantly overhearing stuff that I shouldn’t (like lawyers going on, marketers mouthing off, meetings/phone calls on desks adjacent, bad music playing because someone with *authority* is allowed to make you listen to what you would rather not… the list goes on)

    It comes down to, as in the article, ‘why’? Generally, most managers would not care unless they need to flag you down every 10 seconds, which is an annoyance in itself. If the why is because you’re not attentive? Why not an email. You end up with more done via email, as they, and you, can prove that something has been sent/actioned against. Even an IM (Lync is our choice, mileage may very).

    I’m very happy with my noise cancelling headphones. If I want to focus on my own tasks, which is what I work on most often, I don’t need to hear managers of other departments argue whilst my own manager is on the phone 40cm from me. With my ‘cans, my noise also doesn’t leak out, so I disturb noone if I decide to listen to music.


  • To the employers:
    Whilst at work, regardless of personal preferences or choice. The employer has a legal obligation to OH&S legislation. This includes Noise. Noise-induced hearing loss obtained during work hours is the the responsibility of the employer. If an employee is allowed to listen to music, it is still the employers responsibility to ensure the music is below the Countries average db(A) requirement.
    Most headphones (specially those that are not in par with the device ie. brand device = Samsung, Headphones = Samsung “ok”, Brand = Samsung, Headphones = Beats “specification change” will change the restricted db(A) output as set by the manufacture for the reason of Hearing Damage.

    The employer is liable for any Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. Studies have shown even children are listening to devices with headphones reaching around 110db(A). Noise damage begins at 80db(A) over 8 hours. At 110db(A) noise induced hearing loss can occur within 2minutes of exposure.

    This is a large reason as to why many companies will not allow the use of personal device music.

    If you can test the output level, it would be highly recommended. NOTE: do not use a phone app to do this. iPhones are very much not on par with the actual levels using the noise test apps. Other brands have restricted in and out sound levels and therefore the noise meter apps can only measure to a certain amount, usually under 85db(A)

  • What is the liability for the employer if there is a fire and the employee does not hear the alarm because of the headphones?

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