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. 

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