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Headphones in the office – positive or negative?

August 9, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Joe DeSantis  

Studies are showing that wearing headphones or ear buds to shut out ambient noise in an open office can be a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on what kind of sound you are piping thru the headphones.

The base assumption in office design today is the more open the office, the more collaborative the culture, and collaboration at work is everything. But there is a price to pay for the openness: less privacy and less quiet, both serious challenges to the individual’s ability to concentrate. As a result, a growing number of businesses are tolerating, if not necessarily encouraging, the use of personal noise reduction technology in the office.

But research is showing that it is important to draw a distinction between improving your concentration by cancelling out ambient noise and improving your concentration by replacing the ambient noise with your favorite music. The studies are showing that the former works; the latter may be just as distracting as the ambient noise itself.

According to one study, listening to your favorite music makes you pay more attention to the music than to the work in front of you; ironically, listening to your least favorite music does exactly the same thing. Researchers at the Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan found that students who either loved or hated the music they listened to on their ear phones scored lower on tests of attention than those who didn’t care about the music one way or the other. It stands to reason, say neuroscientists. Concentration takes mental effort. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex has to work to keep the brain from being distracted by sounds that demand to be processed—like music that is highly seductive, or equally obnoxious, to the listener. According to Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, “Attention takes mental effort, and we can get mentally tired.”

DeSimone’s own research on the subject suggests that music with lyrics led to lower concentration levels compared to music without lyrics. Separate research published in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in 2010 found that listening to hip-hop music was linked to a “significant” reduction in reading-test scores.

So music without lyrics, of the type that is so familiar to the listener as to be non-distracting, may work for a lot of people. As well, noise-cancelling headphones of the type many airlines make available to fliers may work well too, because they allow users to let in a level of ambient noise that does not hurt their concentration.

Like any trend that approaches or reaches critical mass, using head phones for privacy purposes has an impact on office culture. That makes it a learning experience for everyone. A 2010 survey of 1,400 CIOs by Robert Half Technology found that they considered headphones and ear buds a major breach of office etiquette.

Marissa Yu is the director of interiors in Houston, Texas for PageSoutherlandPage. The company encourages its employees to use headphones when they need to shut out ambient noise. Ms. Yu finds it frustrating. “You call their name one, two, three, four times, and they’re not responding . . . You dial their extension and they’re not picking up. Pretty soon you’re throwing rubber bands across the wall.”

Alan Henry, a writer for, once worked in an office where his workstation sat midway between a conference room door and the main entrance to the office. He was often distracted by the constant traffic past his work station, so he took to wearing large, noticeable earphones for, he says, about 70% of the time. Coworkers began to complain that he was unapproachable, so he developed signals: if, when they approached him, he took off both earphones, it meant that he was open for business. But if he took off only one of them, it meant leave him alone. He was too busy to talk.

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