Ever since Steve Jobs gifted the world with the iPod and changed the music industry forever, it became the norm for people to have at least one earbud in at all times. Music emerged as the sidekick to routine activities — with “1,000 songs in your pocket” you could listen to a playlist all day and not repeat a single song! Headphone culture was born and consumer electronics was forever changed.
More than ever before, human beings could control our environment. It didn’t matter what was going on around us; we could put on our favorite song and be inspired right there at the DMV. We could let our music overcome us and start dancing while walking down the street.
This all sounds great… when you don’t have any compelling responsibilities. What about when you need to stay focused at work?
If you’ve visited any type of shared workspace, you’ve experienced headphone culture. Imagine walking into an open-concept office. There is a team strategizing at the conference table, maybe a couple of people chatting at the water club. Others are trying to work independently at their desks. And there are headphones — lots of headphones. Informal studies suggest most young people wear headphones about half the time they’re working.
It’s pretty clear why headphone culture became so prominent in the workplace. A recent study tells us that although we are content with open communication and workplace interactions, we are most challenged by a lack of privacy and noise distractions within shared workspaces. Essentially, we’re just not satisfied unless we have an office that provides a generous level of privacy and acoustical quality.
Given that most offices are designed with cubicle or shared-space concepts, we take advantage of headphone culture to add a pinch of privacy and a dash of focus to our workday recipe. Loud impromptu hallway meetings? Headphones. Annoying chewing sounds? Headphones. Some even put headphones on without any music playing.
We love our headphones because they reduce noise distraction. But they also send the message to others in our shared spaces that we are not to be interrupted.
We don’t actually WANT to wear headphones at work [all the time]. We just want some privacy.
After studying this phenomenon in depth, and conducting an informal employee survey, I’ve come to believe that using headphones in the office can result in unintended consequences. While we resort to their use out of desperation and for lack of any better solutions, headphones can make employees feel anxious in the environments they’re trying so hard to optimize. We fear we might miss an impromptu meeting or hearing someone talking to us. We worry we seem antisocial or struggle with being distracted by listening to music.
A Taiwanese study revealed our performance can be severely stifled when we listen to music while trying to concentrate. Reading and writing while lyrics are pounding in your head overworks our brain.
Although your intentions may be genuine and based on a desire to optimize your environment for work, throwing on the headphones every time you sit down at your desk can weaken your bond with co-workers and cause you to become isolated and even anxious; this only hurts your productivity and engagement.
Wearing headphones actually impact our work performance. And not in a good way.
So here’s what it comes down to: Sure, some people can throw on the headphones, listen to their jam, and bust out some really great work. However, more often than not, people just want some quiet time so they can think and not get overstimulated by their surroundings. Or they just don’t know any other way to send the message that they don’t want to be interrupted.
Working in shared workspaces is challenging, but by using headphones, we are often distracting ourselves from the noise with more noise (or at least, pretending to do so). Luckily, better solutions are beginning to emerge, more suited to the future of work.
My co-founder Sergio Aleman, Jr. and I have used our design skills together with a passion for moving the workplace into the future with our first product, Alcove. We believe Alcove is the right answer to the problems we attempt (and generally fail) to solve with headphones. You can learn more about Alcove and even help us get it off the ground on Kickstarter.
About the Author
Yared Akalou, co-founder and CEO of Alcove Group, has dedicated years of field study and research on how people are working today and is taking a lead. Alcove is a patent-pending laptop case that offers a solution with privacy panels and a rechargeable light bar with a dimmer switch to support focused work and intimate collaborations.
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash