Walk into any open-plan office and you're likely to see rows of employees wearing headphones. While new research shows that wearing headphones can help increase productivity, it’s not the only way employees can avoid distractions. With location-variety flexibility, employees can spend an optimal number of hours away from the company office each week to focus on heads-down work or just get a reprieve from pesky office chatter.
Cloud Cover Music, a company that offers playlists designed for workplaces, surveyed 1,005 employees and employers about music at work and found that 55 percent of respondents regularly used headphones at work, with 30 percent primarily doing so to cancel outside noise. And it seems to work: 78 percent of employees said music makes them more productive, and 66 percent said their productivity increases when they use headphones in particular. (Incidentally, classic rock, alternative, and pop are the music genres respondents found most productive; hip-hop, heavy metal, and EDM are the most unproductive.)
But headphones can also impair communication, sometimes intentionally: 46 percent of respondents said they used headphones to avoid a conversation, including 67 percent of government and public administration employees and 54 percent of technology employees. These stats corroborate a recent New York Times column titled "When Headphones Get in the Way of Office Communication," in which "Workologist" Rob Walker observes that, in open-plan offices, "headphones are the new walls."
"There's definitely a case to be made that self-isolating workers can miss out on useful collaborative opportunities," Walker points out. "And this column has noted in the past that for an office newcomer in particular, heavy use of headphones can send a 'don't talk to me' vibe that's not great for a career."
Anne Kreamer, a former EVP at Nickelodeon and the author of Risk/Reward, issued a similar warning in a 2012 Harvard Business Review article. "If an employee is glued to her desk with headphones on … she is missing the opportunity to create relationships with people on the job who might be launching a project for which she'd be perfect, or who's kicking around the idea to launch a new firm that needs precisely her talents," she wrote. "It's a huge and real loss in terms of career development."
Happily, workplace flexibility offers a better solution.
Location variety—or even full-on location independence—provides workers with opportunities to achieve that same level of focus and productivity. Remote and DeskPlus flexibility types can be used to avoid office distractions and to capitalize on uninterrupted "maker" time. Members of the Werk team use these flex types for this very reason, with the knowledge that the best way to optimize thinking is sometimes to get out of the office. And because Remote and DeskPlus workers and their employers have already adapted to online collaboration, there are no communication breakdowns like there might be with headphones. (Call it the The "Can You Hear Me Now?" Effect.)
Without modifications like DeskPlus and Remote, workers can struggle to meet their goals and maintain their output. In our research, we found that the current workday structure makes it challenging for 29 percent of workers to perform optimally in their roles, for 29 percent to perform sustainably over time, and for 37 percent—including 40 percent of millennials—to feel inspired or energized by their physical workspace.
So the next time you see an employee wearing headphones at their desk, don’t just assume they’re being antisocial or slacking while jamming out to the new Ariana Grande track. You might discover that their location needs aren’t being met—and that should be a call-to-action that change is needed within your organization.