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Headphones in the office

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70Headphones in the office…good idea or bad idea?

This summer we had a development team working on a project to deliver InSite online courses on iPads, tablets, and other mobile devices.  The team found it productive to collaborate in a conference room, as they stumbled across random Java calls, guzzled Mtn. Dew, cursed ill-conceived design decisions, ate yogurt just like Michael Westen on Burn Notice, and threw darts at a poster of Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace.

There were times of incredible productivity that included rapid-fire brainstorming, solution speculation, micro-tests, and code breakthroughs that led to fist-pumps and high-fives.  A team member would tweak the code, refresh the system, grab a mobile device, test the change, note results, rinse, and repeat.  Fun, exhausting project that required the team to stay in synch – working off the same code base – and to stay in touch – keeping up with the latest breakthroughs, gotchas, and lessons learned.

I observed the benefits of using headphones during this project.  The development and testing of an eLearning system generates noise.  A team member will work the timeline of a recorded lesson nudging images and voice-over to achieve the perfect flow.  That involves playing and replaying the same, annoying audio tracks…over and over.  If you are a programmer up to your eyeballs in Java calls trying to figure out what’s hogging all the memory in iOS, you will get distracted by the sounds of a repeating audio loop.  Add to that distraction the normal chatter of teammates in a common area.  So, grab the headphones.  Drown out the noise.  Focus.  Productivity goes up.  Frustration goes down.

I also observed the drawbacks of using headphones.  You miss what’s going on.  You don’t hear important bits of information.

Yesterday, I came across an excellent article by Anne Kreamer – Workers, Take Off Your Headphones.  I encourage you to read it.  Kreamer tackles the topic and notes research from Wharton, Cal State Sacramento, Harvard Medical School, Florida State, University College London, to name a few.  Here is a quote from Kreamer from her experience working in teams:

“If I’d had headphones on, exclusively aware of the work in front of me, I would have missed out on important details, let alone the collective high that was experienced when a good piece of news rippled through. The more I participated in the ambient, informal life of the office, the more committed I became to the work of the company.”

For those who follow Agile practices, you’ll note the familiar theme of osmotic communications that flows like a river through this discussion.  It’s imperative that the team shares the latest-and-greatest project news in real time, as much as possible.  Informal, face-to-face conversations are the best means of sharing breakthroughs, gotchas, a change in plans, and the like.  If I’m wearing headphones, I may miss it.

Kreamer builds a case against excessive use of headphones in the office.  Wear them too often, and you’ll note: (1) missed opportunities to contribute and advance your career, (2) eroding employee loyalty, and (3) a drain on innovation.

Isolation and quiet focus are excellent for short bursts that call for intense concentration.  But, members of the team need to stay engaged, connected, and in the loop.

Back to the question: Wearing headphones in the office…good idea or bad idea?  All things in moderation.  Find the balance.

2 responses to “Headphones in the office”

  1. Andy Crowe Andy Crowe says:

    My struggle is that without headphones I can find it difficult to focus. I have been writing pretty intensely this summer, and I’ve needed to shut out distractions, but I am well aware that this comes at a price.

    For me, it’s a delicate balancing act. I need to be able to monitor the current of conversation around me, but some of the work that I do requires intense concentration, and for me that means near silence.

    Ha! Maybe someone will invent headphones that only let in important parts of the discussion and block out the chatter about this weekend’s game or the review of last night’s episode of Breaking Bad. Until then, I will have to find a way to maintain balance myself.

    • Bill Yates Bill Yates says:

      There’s an idea…I like it! Bose led the way with Noise-Cancelling Headphones. Now, some engineers need to birth new technology for Chatter-Cancelling sets. Brilliant.

      I lay that challenge at the corporate doorstep of Google. They’ve got the SEO game in the palm of the hand…they should be able to parlay those algorithms into this new challenge!

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