Editorial: Tune In, but Don't Tune Out | AIChE

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Editorial: Tune In, but Don't Tune Out


This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the July 2018 issue of CEP.

Shortly after Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, people began wearing earbuds in the office, presumably so they could listen to music while they worked. It seemed to be a generational thing, and some of my generation considered that behavior, which some saw as “tuning out,” inappropriate. As open-plan offices have become the norm, so have headphones in the workplace, and their acceptance.

RAPID Interim CEO Tom Walsh shared his interesting experience with headphones: “When Honeywell moved its headquarters, they designed what is arguably a state-of-the-art, open-concept, limited-assigned-seating office. They deployed a seamless WiFi system and some of the best collaboration tools available, including a fully enabled Skype for Business network. Every employee was issued a wireless, over-ear headset to take advantage of the networking capability. I was dubious at first, but a day or two into the experience I was a complete convert. The quality of sound and reduction in interference from other workers was a transformation. I found myself wearing them for long periods and enjoying the experience. I think you may find that many companies are making this shift. Based on my experience, it would be an easy jump to an office environment where headphones are the norm rather than the exception.”

To gauge current opinion, I polled my coworkers, and I received 63 responses to my SurveyMonkey questionnaire (almost two-thirds of our 96 full-time employees). Three-quarters of the respondents wear headphones in the office; 73% of those use earbuds, while 27% wear over-the-ear headphones. About two-thirds wear them a few hours a day or less, while one-third wear them for half the day or longer. The most common reason for using headphones is to block out conversations (72%) and general office noise (62%); slightly more than 40% say they wear headphones as a do-not-disturb-me signal.

About half of the respondents to my survey listen to music, either for enjoyment or as motivation. (See “Cultivate and Sustain Motivation,” pp. 40–45, for a discussion of motivation.) Listening to music has numerous advantages that can translate to higher employee productivity. Music puts us in a good mood — it causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of euphoria, in the brain, and it reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol — both of which can help to improve our performance. Cornell Univ. researchers found that playing happy, upbeat music made team members more likely to cooperate and make group decisions that benefited the team. A study at Radboud Univ. Nijmegen in the Netherlands found that creativity was higher among participants who listened to happy music while performing a divergent creative task (one that relies on the imagination, rather than convergent thinking based on logic) than for participants who performed the task in silence. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine and the Univ. of North Carolina Greensboro found that young adults who listened to music they liked were able to focus better on the task at hand. (Listening to music with lyrics, however, could be more of a distraction than an assistance, regardless of whether you are listening to it through headphones or speakers.)

Despite the benefits of listening to music and blocking out distractions, headphones also have disadvantages. In a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Workers, Take Off Your Headphones,” author Anne Kreamer writes that a person wearing headphones misses out on the “daily osmotic information exchange and collaborative bonding” that help us create relationships, and companies lose “some of the opportunity to have employees contribute new ideas that might be percolating within the larger culture but under the radar of the organization.”

A few of my colleagues consider the use of headphones in the office to be unprofessional and think that they convey a sense of unapproachability. Most, however, do not object, and many think headphones are a necessity in today’s open-office environment. The key to their acceptability seems to be balance. Business etiquette coach Patricia Rossi offers these tips:

  • Know when to tune in. Music is an excellent way to get us away from the stresses of life and help us relax. But that’s probably not the best idea when you have a major project to work on. Instead of plugging your headphones into your computer and zoning out constantly, wait until all major work has been completed. You need to be fully aware of your surroundings at the office on busy days.
  • Control the volume. To avoid becoming the rudest person in the office for never hearing colleagues when they are trying to talk to you, either wear only one earbud for light sound or keep the volume of your music down.
  • Take your headphones out when you walk away from your desk. Keeping the headset on all of the time isolates you from coworkers.
  • Don’t make listening to music a higher priority than collaborating with colleagues. Unless you are using your headphones to block out distractions so you can concentrate, when people approach, remove both earbuds and turn off the music so they know you are giving them your full attention.

Another tip, from a CEP editor, is this: If you see someone wearing headphones, consider sending them an email instead of starting a conversation.

These simple courtesies can foster harmony in the workplace.

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