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Take Off Your Headphones and Listen

Wearing earbuds in the office could be hurting your company—and your own career

It’s an irony as rich and common as it is troubling: A company designs an open office plan in the hopes of fostering collaboration, only to see its employees don earphones and negate the benefits of said seating arrangement.

At first blush, an employee wearing earbuds seems a good thing. It signals the person has entered “The Zone,” a period of intense concentration and productivity that can only be achieved when vibing to music and drowning out his colleagues. The employee wearing earbuds has no time for your trivial People v. O.J. takes — he is hard at work (unlike you).

But the externality of wearing earbuds in the office is decreased innovation, according to Ben Waber, an expert in “people analytics,” a nascent field of study homed on how to optimize efficiency and creativity in the workplace. The entire point of coming into an office — of occupying the same physical space as your co-workers — is to stimulate informal conversations between employees. Those conversations produce fresh ideas that (hopefully) become new business opportunities. But earbuds (or headphones) impede that process, Waber says.

“[Wearing headphones] will severely handicap the performance of everybody, because you lose all the stuff that makes a company an effective way for people to collaborate,” Waber says.

The “earbuds in the office” scourge tends to be particularly bad at tech companies, according to Waber, whose startup Humanyze consults companies on how to improve creativity and efficiency in the workplace. He’s personally seen open plan offices in which hundreds of workers wear headphones. And when everyone in the office wears headphones they might as well all be working from home, a less-than-ideal work scenario in its own right.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was excoriated as anti-family in 2013 for dissolving Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, thus forcing Yahoo’s working parents to start coming into the office. But it was actually a sound business decision, according to Waber. By having its engineers work in proximity to one another and exchange information in person, Yahoo saved $150 million per year in increased productivity, he calculates.

Even intensely self-interested employees, ones who place their personal career goals before those of their employers, should ditch the earbuds. According to Waber, passively listening to their co-workers will make them better at their jobs. “Informal information sharing leads to higher performance in the medium- to long-term because you’re learning a lot more about the work you’re doing — stuff that’s not encapsulated in simplistic emails.”

Earbuds will even hinder your chances of getting promoted, he says. It’s common knowledge that managers are more likely to hire a candidate he or she knows than a stranger, and the same logic applies to advancement within a company. Managers are more likely to promote employees they’re familiar with, and it’s difficult for a manager to build a rapport with someone who spends the workday jamming out alone to the new Kendrick Lamar album.

“If all you’re doing is floating from company to company in the same role, [wearing earbuds] won’t have much of an effect,” Waber says. “To the extent you want upward mobility, it’s going to have a big impact there.”

Greg Lindsay — author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity about designing spaces and cities that encourage innovation — blames the “headphones at work” scourge on the popularity of the open office plan. But now the trend has gone too far, he says. Corporations are using the cachet of an open office as an excuse to cut costs and cram everyone into a confined space “regardless of role, function or work style. In many cases, there’s not much nuance to it.”

Indeed, “the amount of space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010,” Susan Cain writes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The results, according to Lindsay: “Headphones are the new cubicle walls” — a signal the wearer isn’t to be disturbed. And they might be a necessity for introverts, who might feel particularly challenged by a noisy, open-planned office, as demonstrated by the famous “Geen study” Cain references in her book.

In 1984, researchers at the University of Missouri (led by Russell G. Green), challenged a group of extroverts and introverts to learn the rules of a word game while wearing “headphones that emitted random bursts of noise.” When asked to adjust the noise to a level that was “just right” for them, the extroverts chose a noise level almost 20 decibels higher than the introverts (and ended up playing the game equally well). But when the introverts and extroverts switched noise levels, both groups underperformed, but especially the introverts.

Rather than just give everyone their own pair of noise-canceling headphones to curate the audio environment that works for them, a better, more collaborative solution is to design an office that includes different environments with specific functions — for casual collaboration, an open floor with rows of desks; soundproof conference rooms for small group meetings; and private nooks for intense solo work.

Or your colleagues can find the right balance between productive chitchat and being annoying AF.

“The real answer is an office culture where people don’t feel compelled to annoy you at any moment, so you keep the headphones off,” Lindsay says.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about Ethan Klein, who’s on a one-man crusade to keep YouTube honest.