How Headphones Killed the Office Buzz

Silhouette of man wearing headphones overlooking office skyscrapers

Headphones Killed the Office Buzz

As companies look for ways to promote teamwork and a collaborative work environment, the debate about an open-office environment has been on for over a decade.   In an effort to build a creative space where ideas are spontaneously combusting through the work day and profitability is soaring, companies are boosting their capital expense budget each year to allow for a fit-out of new office space.  General contractors are enjoying their new-found job security as they knock down walls and open up space to entice workers into a cozy state of cohabitation.  Surely, this has been seen as a panacea that will improve learning and idea sharing.

It seems like a great plan, but what corporate executives didn’t plan for is how today’s culture has been transformed by the smart phone era to the extent that the workforce would rather text you than speak to one another.  This new workforce is highly adaptable to their new conditions.  One can even download white noise apps. No problems here for these tech-savvy business warriors who have replaced bricks and mortars and achieved isolation with walls made of internet sites, video games and social apps.  The biggest dilemma may be with the next generation that will arrive in the work force.  Ask any parent who tries to extend conversation with their teenager beyond the dinner table, and heads will be bobbing like a buoy in a wake zone.

Enter stage right, a host of electronic products on everyone’s holiday shopping list, and the perfect storm is created that dampens the creative energy amongst a team like the Bose QC15 noise-cancellation head phones muffles the engine noise of a 777 for any lucky passenger who can afford them.  (Love mine BTW).  The silence generated is eerie. So much so that your staff may even be oblivious to the roar of a Walker from the Walking Dead shuffling down a cubicle farm.

It used to be that bulky headphones were reserved for the “hipster” engineer designing the next patentable product while sitting in a darkened cube staring at two computers screens and listening to sports talk radio or 1979 Led Zeppelin songs on their shiny new disc players.    The pillars of industry liked keeping these guys quiet and happy as they built them a library of intellectual property.  But now, everyone hooks on headphones or ear buds.

The outcome is that coworkers may be less likely to communicate with others sitting in the same space than those assigned to cubicles or separate offices.  As a manager, the direct report seems oblivious, becoming the focal point of frustration as they try to engage and get their attention. 

Can managers enforce a “no-headphone” policy?   Likely not, without creating some infringement of this newly established work zone.  Do we have to resort to encouraging communication by sending Outlook invites to plead with coworkers to speak together? Maybe we can create a collaboration goal around it, and reward people for simply talking to one another.

Headphones also inhibit the opportunity for casual networking before and after work.  I observed an executive who entered an elevator and asked an employee how they were.  When the employee realized that he had been addressed, he took one bud out and said “what?”.  The executive shook him off.  Both of them had checked out, and the opportunity for networking had passed.

My advice for anyone who may be reading this while listening to music through ear buds – recognize that someone may want to talk to you right now, but perceive you as closed off – to new ideas and a chance at new responsibilities.  Good communication skills are essential for an emerging manager, but it is difficult to practice them while listening to Spotify or Pandora.  Take them off and initiate a work buzz at your office.  See what happens.

Joyce Mihalik is the President & CEO of HlpSum1, Inc., a start-up company in Akron, Ohio that operates social media sites, with a mission to inspire people to help others and increase volunteering.  As part of programming, Joyce has started a blog site called Business World – Beyond the Classroom, with a goal of providing guidance for young career professionals. 

Stand out during the goal setting process – Step 2


Most companies have a form or a system where employees memorialize their goals.   Sometimes the system or format itself provides so much structure that devising goals becomes more about documentation than ties to actual performance.  Completing your goals is another task you can check off of your list! The act of goal setting provides many opportunities for networking and visibility that most people rarely take advantage of.  The author of this blog is also guilty of this!  View your goals as a contract, between you and your supervisor, another department, or your “customer” which can be an internal or an external customer.  Take the opportunity to share your goal “contract”, and ask for feedback on whether or not the goal and the activities documented will provide value.  By including your peers or your customers in the goal setting process, they will automatically be more vested in helping you achieve those goals, especially if they know they will benefit.

Stand Out During The Goal Setting Process – Step 1


It’s time to finalize your work goals for the year.  Goals usually follow a formal job description or are set by taking a look at what was done last year.  The boss will usually set goals aligned with their own.  When goal setting becomes routine, it is one of the first traps that leads to job dissatisfaction and boredom.  Most of us want to stray from the routine, and create a challenge in our year that we can passionately pursue.  This year, approach goals with the mindset of changing the conversation between you and your peers, your supervisor and even the executive staff.  This is an opportunity for you to control your own destiny. I suggest including goals that are beyond your normal scope.   People are not usually promoted because they excel at what they do. Instead, they move up because they have added scope and have shown growth and interest in continuing development.  Regardless of where your goals end up, your supervisor will recognize that you have interests beyond your immediate role, and even if there isn’t an immediate opening, the momentum may begin to shift to a different role in the future.

Common courtesy is the grease for teamwork


Whether you are a team manager or an individual contributor, there are certain norms that we have learned while growing up that still apply today.  I often loved the book and the expression that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten.  Not quite – but some common rules apply.  One golden role – say Hello and Goodnight to any of your coworkers you see when you start your work day or end it.   This can take many forms: “Hey”, “how are you”, “did you watch that game yesterday”, “what a commute today”, “sunny day”, “how was the weekend” .  Some form of acknowledgement is required to improve collaboration and support teamwork and camaraderie.  Not only is it a common courtesy, but it tells your coworkers that I am interested in being a member of this team and that I respect you as a person (even if you don’t like their work), and that in turn, I expect the same consideration.  At the end of the day, an acknowledgement is also needed, for those you see along your pathway to the door, and even going a little out of your way to stop and recognize their presence again.  What if you are normally quiet, is this still required?  The answer is Yes!!,  especially in this case.  Coworkers of quiet people need reinforcement to gauge the attitude of their coworkers.   Is there a problem?  Is he or she unhappy with their work life?  Are we good?

On your way into the job today, stop and say “hey”,  you will likely be greeted in the same way, and have set a positive tone for the rest of the day.