Last fall, I was gifted a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. And as everyone in my office already knows, I think they changed my life. My morning commute went from bustling city to slight buzz, picking up my coffee order went from slight annoyance to “Sweet! This is my song!,” and don’t even get me started on how calming they are when there’s construction going on around me 24/7.
But I've always wondered if it was rude to wear them in the office. I work in an open space stacked with people, all of whom I love to talk with and who like to talk with each other. I’ve always worried I’ll miss someone trying to get my attention, come across as unfriendly or standoffish, or just generally miss out on what’s going on around me. And would my boss think any, or all, of these cases were true?
While I generally try not to think too hard about my generalized workplace worries — because honestly, women deal with too much self-doubt to be worried about things like whether or not they’re taking notes in a meeting — I thought this concern might be worth investigating. I’ve never read about it before and, as we all know, AirPods, the inherently sneaky earbuds, are on the rise. So, I talked to several managers to gather what they think about their employees wearing earbuds at work — and what the general rules of headphone etiquette should be.
Director of Marketing at Outback Team Building Datis Mohsenipour prefers when colleagues wear headphones because it cuts down on disruptions.
"I absolutely love it when my team members wear headphones at work. I find that it makes them more productive, more focused, and less susceptible to distractions," Mohsenipour said.
Founder and CEO of GetVoIP, Reuben Yonatan, agrees.
"Headphones in the office, especially an open office, can be a really effective way for helping employees block out the distractions of the office and get some focused work done," he said. "Along with helping keep distractions away, some employees just work better when they have their favorite music or podcast playing."
When I asked Fairygodboss Director of Marketing & Communications Mary Pharris if she minded headphones in the workplace, she laughed.
"People need to create environments they are comfortable in — sometimes that means wearing noise-cancelling headphones or listening to music," Pharris said. Inside sources say she likes to listen to Miley Cyrus and Cardi B to really get into her work.
Some managers noted that the use of headphones is especially useful for certain employees, such as writers or coders.
"They really help the coders and writers on our team focus and concentrate. The normal office etiquette is a little outdated and we move with the times," Scott Krieger, Creative Director & Web Developer at Studio 54, shared.
"When it comes to colleagues who wear headphones at work, I'm personally in favor of wearing them. When you need your space in an open office, it's the only way to have it," Co-founder of What to Become Darko Jacimovic echoed. "Considering how wearing headphones are necessary for most of the employees in my office to dive into a creative flow they need for writing, I never assume they make themselves unavailable by wearing them. If I notice that they are buried in the "flow," devotedly typing and looking very focused, I will not bother them."
One company, Trendhim, believes in the power of headphones so much that it "equips all employees with noise-cancellation headphones, as well as a Spotify subscription," communication specialist Amélie Drouet shared. "Beyond listening to videos or music without disturbing others, we also use it as a way to respect each other's need for focus."
Several managers mentioned making sure that your "audio content" isn't so loud your neighbors can hear it. Many also mentioned making sure you're still available for questions and cross-table chatter.
"We have some rules for wearing headphones in the office space... music should never be given higher priority than colleagues. For instance, if someone stops at your desk for a quick question, they should get your full attention," Mohammed Abuzar, Senior Digital Marketing Specialist at Siva Solutions Inc. said.
Tiiu Lutter, contributor to CompareLifeInsurance.com and the Director of Development for a mental health nonprofit that employs over 500 people, says that her organization has come up with practices revolving around headphone usage.
"In general, I have no problem with people who wear headphones at work... However, as any parent can tell you, headphones also interfere with communication, negatively impact conversations, and lead people to feel ignored and disrespected.
As in all things, balance is key. Here is how we handle it with my team: Before putting on headphones we announce it and see if anyone needs anything. That by itself solves a lot of problems.
When specific deep work is not being done, it’s better to not wear them or to just wear one, so that you can hear what else is being said. Lots of collaboration happens organically, and headphones impede that.
We have also adopted a practice from Riot Games. When they plug in, they put a sign on their desk. It can say a couple of things: headphones in, just tap me; headphones in, interrupt if important; headphones in, emergencies only. It’s a winner.
Of course, there is also some basic etiquette. Don’t wear headphones in the hall, and never ever wear them in a meeting. Not even one. Use headphones to give yourself space where there is none, not to set up barriers against interaction."
Chief People Officer of Fitsmallbusiness.com Adrienne Cooper's team has also agreed on an organizational headphone policy.
"We actually have agreed as a team that headsets mean 'please do not interrupt, doing focus work,' so we respect them as a signal," she shared.
Senior Director of User Acquisition at Fairygodboss, Ngozi Ogbonna, agrees that headphones should be used to their greatest potential without allowing them to impede your communication.
"I'm OK with headphones because open floor plans can be very distracting and being able to listen to some music and get into the zone is helpful, especially given that it's easy to get distracted or not be able to work uninterrupted. It's also important that it's not too loud, so you can hear other people who are talking to you," she said.
In fact, some really hate them, especially when employees don't recognize the above boundaries.
Design Manager and Blogger Becky Beach said she "can't stand it when my employees wear headphones, to be honest. The worst headphones people wear on the job are the noise cancelling Beats or Bose brand. I have to scream in order to get their attention or tap them on the shoulder."
Mads Singers, a Management Coach, told us it's incredibly important to allow people to work how they work best.
"It's important to treat people like... people. Understand they are unique and help facilitate their best performance. My view on this would be the following: I generally let my staff use headsets if that's what works for them," she said.
So, if you want to listen to some classic rock or Ariana Grande while you write those reports, you do you. Now, it's time to move on to an equally important question: what's on your productivity playlist?