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
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
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
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.
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
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!
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