Should You Wear Headphones In The Office?

Brothers Alex (Gizmodo) and Angus (Lifehacker) work in the same pod at Allure Media. Alex spends much of the working day listening to music through his headphones; Angus never does. Which approach is better for productivity? Gizmodo and Lifehacker duke it out.

Picture by star5112

LIFEHACKER: Observant readers will know that I've been at Lifehacker for nearly four years now (yikes!), but it had only been for the last year that I've worked full-time in the office. For me, one of the big benefits of being on site is the ability to interact with other members of the team: discussing story ideas, overhearing gossip, and helping to solve problems. So for that simple reason, I've never gone down the "plug in some headphones and get on with your job" route.

I can't pretend this is an approach everyone adopts. Turning around right now, I can see that Mark and Alex are buried in their headphones. To me, that represents a lot of missed opportunities. So I'll ask (in a non-judging way): why do you do it?

GIZMODO: Because you can't stop the music...

Or, more seriously, while I do get the team vibe and need to be in the office, an open-plan office of the style used at Allure is a noisy place. There's conversations, cackling, televisions running awards shows and a million other distractions. I don't wear my headphones every minute of the working day, but when I've got some serious concentrating to do, I find it helpful. And then there's the question of differing musical tastes...

LIFEHACKER: That can be a challenge. There's an office-wide Sonos music system playing at a discrete volume, and I quite enjoy the mixed selection. On the other hand, when Lady Antebellum comes on and the Sugar team sings along en masse, earplugs do seem desirable.

Of course, even in workplaces which don't have music playing (which I guess is most of them), earphones are still common. Back when you worked from a home office, were you also a big headphone fan? Or did you like tall speakers and wall speakers, but most of all loud speakers?

GIZMODO: I frequently worked at home with headphones, and for two very simple reasons.

Firstly, I have children. Kids are naturally noisy creatures, and noise of that style can equal an easy distraction.

OK, not every workplace will have children in it -- and those that do generally require you to pay attention to the kids, not your choice of tunes. But choice is the other factor, and it's one you've touched on yourself. My music tastes aren't the same as the rest of the office, and while there's something very democratic about the office Sonos system and its ever-evolving playlist, it's also rather jarring to have a request for dirty pictures being made fifty times a day when I'm trying to concentrate!

Whereas with headphones I can listen to my own music, and I do find it's an aid to concentration and often creativity. When I worked at home it was easier (and sometimes more child-appropriate) for me to slip on headphones and listen to something I liked than it was to blast it all over the place.

Flipping the issue on its head, though, I'm a little surprised by one thing. I've got admittedly limited tastes and artists I follow, whereas you own more CDs than . . . anyone. Ever. Seriously, even if you moved abroad for six years, you'd come home and your CD collection would have mated to form new compilations. And yet you choose not to listen to music in the office save for through the office Sonos system -- which sits right near me and nowhere near you. (That's probably also a reason why I wear headphones' I physically cannot avoid what's on the Sonos save for turning it down, which I rarely do.)

So given you're clearly a lover of music, are there reasons why you wouldn't wear headphones?

LIFEHACKER: The answer is -- largely -- habit. When I worked at home, I often had music going, but it was invariably blasting through speakers. That was partly because I lived alone and so I didn't need to worry about anyone objecting to my taste in music:

But it was also because headphones are a nuisance when the phone rings: either you don't notice in the first place, or you scramble to remove them and grab the handset in time. It just seemed like too much unnecessary hassle.

My headphones do come out (right now, I'm still favouring the O'Neill Stretch when I'm transcribing, or if I'm walking (which I do rather a lot of). But outside of those contexts, I'm just not a headphone guy.

There are occasions when music is a useful way of helping me to focus. If I need a burst of energy and focus, there are a few failsafe go-to tracks and albums I can use:

But on the whole, what I learned when I first started doing #NaNoWriMo a couple of years back still holds true: I can work anywhere, regardless of the distractions. So mostly that's what I do.

GIZMODO: See, the headphone/phone problem doesn't hit me too hard, largely because I take most calls on my mobile, and my headphones have an in-line microphone. But that's very much a taste thing, I suppose. I can work anywhere, anytime as you can, but I do find when I need focus, blocking the rest of the world out and having a beat to work to is highly useful.

Except maybe for that bit of music.

Are headphones an essential part of your work environment, or do you prefer hearing what's happening in the office? Tell us in the comments.