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Do Headphones Help Or Hurt Productivity? 405

Posted by Soulskill
from the drowning-out-your-officemate's-annoying-habit dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Derek Thompson writes that there is an excellent chance you are wearing, or within arm's reach of, a pair of headphones or earbuds. To visit a modern office place is to walk into a room with a dozen songs playing simultaneously but to hear none of them. In survey after survey, office workers report with confidence that music makes us happier, better at concentrating, and more productive. But science says we're full of it, writes Thompson. 'Listening to music hurts our ability to recall other stimuli, and any pop song — loud or soft — reduces overall performance for both extroverts and introverts.' So if headphones are so bad for productivity, why do so many people at work have headphones? The answer is that personal music creates a shield both for listeners and for those walking around usm says Thompson. 'I am here, but I am separate. In a wreck of people and activity, two plastic pieces connected by a wire create an aura of privacy.' We assume that people wearing them are busy or oblivious, so now people wear them to appear busy or oblivious — even without music. Wearing soundless headphones is now a common solution to productivity blocks. 'If music evolved as a social glue for the species — as a way to make groups and keep them together — headphones allow music to be enjoyed friendlessly — as a way to savor our privacy, in heightened solitude,' concludes Thompson. 'In a crowded world, real estate is the ultimate scarce resource, and a headphone is a small invisible fence around our minds — making space, creating separation, helping us listen to ourselves.'"
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Do Headphones Help Or Hurt Productivity?

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  • by CycleMan (638982) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:36PM (#40161385)
    ... compared with the random office noises around you, a reliable predictable set of stimuli is easier to tune out. Music is almost white noise when contrasted with folks taking loud phone calls about medical problems, unattended phones ringing at their desks, and so on.
  • 'pop music'... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MarcoAtWork (28889) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:38PM (#40161407)

    that's why most people I know that listen to music while working/coding do not listen to pop (or vocal music in general), but to classical, trance etc. also the article says that silence is better than music in general, which is likely true, but among music and office noises (with random conversations/noises) I am sure people are more productive with music vs without

  • by subreality (157447) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:38PM (#40161409)

    ... but it's a lot less damaging than listening to 6 conversations among people around me. Personally I like "earplug" style headphones which block out most of the noise; then I can use very quiet music to mask the rest.

  • by pathological liar (659969) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:39PM (#40161433)

    Unfortunately I work in an open concept office, so it's either headphones or listen to everything else around me, which is infinitely worse.

    Ever notice how the people who decide on an open concept office usually have a door to theirs?

  • by neilbaby (53319) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:42PM (#40161461) Homepage Journal

    ... compared with the random office noises around you, a reliable predictable set of stimuli is easier to tune out. Music is almost white noise when contrasted with folks taking loud phone calls about medical problems, unattended phones ringing at their desks, and so on.

    Here! Here!

    And it is doubly important when you're working in a bullpen with a bunch of over-caffeinated, Asperger-ish software engineers.

  • Maybe if... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by __Paul__ (1570) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:45PM (#40161491) Homepage

    ...idiot MBA-wielding managers didn't keep shoving people into morale-destroying open-plan offices, they wouldn't have to wear headphones to get a modicum of privacy.

  • by jaden (22302) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:52PM (#40161567)

    ding ding. more or less what I came here to say and what other comments seem to reflect. headphones might not stand up against non-distracting sounds or silence... and if they're piping in pop music for tests i'm sure they might reduce your random number recall. but on a whole it's a study that doesn't reflect something a number of us have experienced to be true... if you want to deeply concentrate on something (writing code, or something else that often benefits from extreme focus)... tuning out one sense of the world around you with headphones - even if it's by blaring NIN - is better than the random whispers of conversations around you breaking your attention span. it's a moving target... no stimuli in an isolation tank, hallucinations; too much stimuli... seizure or ptsd (depending)... just right minus sound - some code that might require slightly less tweaking down the line (but probably some ptsd too).


  • Re:'pop music'... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Zephyn (415698) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @06:59PM (#40161627)

    I have a similar experience with music. Instrumental music drowns out the office noise and tends to enhance the thought process. Music with lyrics tends to get too distracting. And if it's modern pop music, part of the productivity loss is probably due to having to resist the urge to take out one's own eardrums with a staple remover.

  • Re:Maybe if... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dubbreak (623656) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @07:06PM (#40161715)
    Excellent point. When I had a private office with a door I had the choice of having the door open to the general R&D area (keep up on what's happening), closing the door for quite concentration and wearing headphones if I liked (some things headphones were good for, some times I need absolute quite to focus on the problem.. depends on a lot of factors).

    We ran out of space for private offices so I ended up sharing a single office. We could still close the door however headphones were the only option if my office-mate was discussing something with another employee.

    Move forward and there was even less space. The solution? Tear out the offices in favour of an 'open concept' office which would 'improve communication' among team members. I ended up having to wear headphones daily regardless of whether I wanted to.

    I ended up leaving for another opportunity and work from home (mainly). Sometimes I play music, sometimes I don't but no headphones (I run proper stereo components). I find it so much more productive because I have the quiet I need for complex problems whenever I want without having to get up and shut a door. Plus I have better lighting (natural daylight!!), better chair (because I'm not a cheap ass and recognize the benefits of a good chair), better keyboard (same deal again). There are a lot of factors in productivity (many of which are environmental), but I'm quite certain any decent dev can tell you want they need to be productive. Not giving them things like a good chair or mechanical keyboard (if that's what they want) due to 'budget' is pure bullshit. If a good developer thinks they need it, they probably do and it will pay back in productivity quickly. Sometimes providing something like a door isn't realistic under the circumstances but if that's the case then why you are providing a sub par work environment needs to be investigated. If you want nothing but the best from your employees then the right environment needs to be provided for those results.
  • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @07:22PM (#40161857) Homepage Journal

    I would agree with this, except I would put classical music [] and/or binaural music [] above silence, as both have been shown to improve concentration and reduce learning and recall times.

    I'm not sure the binaural thing has been conclusively shown to have a benefit, but I have found that listening to music with binaural beats does make me feel like my mind is clearer and more capable of extended periods of concentration.

    Silence would be best, I think, but the problem with the average office is that it is anything but silent, even when it's quiet. There are keyboards clacking, machines humming, cpu fans whirring and air conditioners blowing.

    The main thing I'd like to say about this article is that I'm more concerned about what is making workers happy than what makes them a few percentage points more productive.

    Everybody is already plenty productive. Too productive, maybe. Our lives are out of balance when it comes to productivity/happiness. Almost everyone I know could stand to be a little less productive and a little more content.

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @07:29PM (#40161943)

    When you need to concentrate, just close your door. Instant privacy and silence, and it's a clear sign to others that you're working on something and shouldn't be bothered.

    Oh right, people don't get offices anymore because of the vast performance improvements from the open collaborative workspace where anyone can interrupt you at any time for any inane reason. They even interrupt you inadvertently when they are talking to coworkers

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @07:49PM (#40162147)
    Sadly, I remember when the advice would have been: "never take a job in a cubicle environment". That's how far we have devolved in the workplace.

    How one can concentrate on design, review, or coding of systems with the audio and visual clatter going on in most dev environments is beyond me. Perhaps this explains some of the crappy software out there.
  • Re:'pop music'... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Eil (82413) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @08:59PM (#40162603) Homepage Journal

    I came here to say this. When a song has vocals (particularly hyper-compressed ones optimized for factory car stereos), I find it impossible to concentrate on anything else but the song. Even driving. Dunno if it's my ADD or if everyone is like this and just don't know it or don't care. If I want music for background noise, I generally reach for trance, downtempo, or pretty much anything that is elelctronic sans vocals.

    Typically, I tune into one of several streaming stations, but I also maintain a YouTube playlist called music to hack by [] that I sometimes bring up at work when I want to drown out the office jibber-jabber and concentrate to some fairly rocking choons.

  • Re:Two Words: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by zidium (2550286) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @10:45PM (#40163165) Homepage

    If I don't wear headphones, the constant **INTRIGUING** political and scifi conversations of coworkers behind me who never ever seem to get any work done (standing around behind me, yakking for what seems like 5 hours every day), I never get ANY work done!! A lot of the time, I even get sucked in, go over there, and start yakking myself!

  • by maugle (1369813) on Wednesday May 30, 2012 @11:33PM (#40163337)
    Seriously. I can't understand how any work gets done in cubicles, much less a bullpen setup.

    I share an office with one other guy. We sit in opposite corners, we work quietly, and we get shit done
  • by yotto (590067) on Thursday May 31, 2012 @12:20AM (#40163543) Homepage

    I find that my headphones are fine if I have a little mirror stuck to my monitor, so nobody can sneak up behind me. I've gotten to the point where I don't even turn around when talking to people anymore, I just look in the mirror.

    It's about 3 inches wide, and its similar to the extra, magnifying mirrors on some cars' and trucks' side mirrors. It (along with headphones) has made my cubicle life a breeze.

  • Re:Two Words: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Mirvnillith (578191) on Thursday May 31, 2012 @07:04AM (#40164833)
    This! The GP does say "with no noise in the background", but the truth is that work places tend to have a lot of noise. So I use headphones to get to choose my noise, while still having low enough volume to pick up on things I need to in my surroundings.

"Life, loathe it or ignore it, you can't like it." -- Marvin the paranoid android