Few in the workplace have ever been able to agree on whether or not music has a place on the job. As a result, a touted compromise has often been the fallback – the freedom of allowing workers to set their own listening policies by bringing in their own devices and headphones.

On the surface it sounds like a great idea. You may like to work in silence, while the coworker at the desk next to you swears by some tonsil-shattering sound she swears is music. She puts on the headphones, problem solved.

Or is it?

Do Headphones Help Us on the Job?

Whether or not headphones help you work more effectively depends on many factors. These can range from the nature of the job, to the type of music played, to how you listen to music or which productivity expert is being cited at the moment.

Several different studies in Great Britain and Taiwan indicate that workers listening to headphones on the job will have trouble remembering other stimuli, such as verbal instructions from a boss or remembering figures on a computer screen. These studies suggest that if the music has lyrics it interferes even more, and the more familiar the song, the greater the distraction.

None of this is unanimous, though. Contrasting studies demonstrate that workers who listen to music are more relaxed and able to think more creatively. Further, headphones may boost workplace morale, making for happier workers and eliminating the song-selection fights that are inevitable with a shared office sound system.

While they do cut down on office distractions — an important factor to consider as more offices are abandoning the dreaded cubicles in favor of a more open layout — this can be self-defeating as the music creates its own of set distractions.

You may have a coworker who is so engrossed in the music you have to yell to get his attention. Or the one who doesn’t hear her phone ring. Then there are the other office scenarios like the worker chair-dancing at his desk to his personal music, or the one who likes to sing along — loudly and tunelessly.

A set of headphones can also intrude on company culture and camaraderie by putting up a nonverbal signal that an employee doesn’t want to be bothered. By isolating individuals from distractions, headphones prevent individuals from interacting with the spontaneous conversations and opportunities that present themselves throughout the day.

Types of Jobs Best Suited for Headphone-Wearing

There’s no hard and fast answer as to whether headphones help or hinder work performance, but many argue that the answer is job-dependent.

This is what distraction looks like..

To begin with, headphones don’t mix well with customer service jobs because, obviously, a client deserves the employee’s undivided attention. Worst case scenario, the worker may become so engrossed in what’s being piped through his headphones that he may not notice a customer needs assistance, or that the client exists at all. Essentially, headphones will get in the way of any job that is based on having conversations within the company or with clients  – such as a customer service representative, an HR professional, or a salesperson.

Other jobs, like those involving machinery, are equally ill-suited for headphone-wearing employees. A worker needs to hear what’s going on for safety, and ear buds can also get entangled in the machines.

On the other hand, headphones may be an asset for monotonous work like coding or typing. They can help keep the individual alert and energized, while eliminating external distractions. Each person is different, however, and some workers report that they will remove the ear buds if a task needs extra concentration.

Final Notes

Depending on the job, you may find that music helps to eliminate distractions, keep you focused and awake, and even improve productivity. If this is the case, classical music and jazz get marks for the best music to work to, but again that’s far from clear cut. If you don’t like those genres you’re probably not going to work very well to them either.

Like most topics of productivity in the workplace, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Factors range from type of task, to your personality, to types of music that you want to listen to. No matter what you decide, or how you decide to implement it, it’s best to use headphone listening in moderation. By keeping your ears attuned to the atmosphere around you you’re going to pick up on conversations with coworkers or off-the-cuff talks with your boss that will help you move ahead in your career and do the best job possible. That said, if a little music helps you cut out the noise and zip through a monotonous project? Go for it. Time is of the essence.




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