Seen but not heard: Are plugged-in employees more productive?

It's the norm for workers in dotcom companies to wear headphones at their desks – and the trend is spreading. So are plugged-in employees more productive? Tim Walker listens in

Monday 20 July 2009 00:00
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Even amid the apparently constant chatter of a busy, open-plan office, there are moments in the working day when the hubbub dies down and silence briefly reigns.

Silence, that is, disturbed only by a persistent "tss-tss-tss-tss". No, it's not a fault in the air conditioning system, nor is it the boss's temper simmering. It's the person next to you, listening to trebly dance-pop music on their noise-cancelling headphones. And heaven help you if you ask them to turn it down.

Like the tea rota, smelly packed lunches or excessive Facebook usage, headphones are a widespread source of tension in the workplace, and with the advent of streamed music services such as Last.FM and Spotify, it's become even simpler to spend a working day plugged in and tuned out. But if retreating to a musical cocoon to escape the distractions of the office makes an individual more productive, it can also make a team dysfunctional.

The headphones phenomenon is generally frowned upon in the white- collar professions for which you have to wear a suit to work every day, but it's prevalent in the "creative" and media industries. And in dotcom country, people are particularly reluctant to interrupt a colleague's playlist, says Andres Sehr of Spotify. In the company's Stockholm office of approximately 65 people, most spend their days plugged into the music streaming service.

"In companies like ours, you'll talk to the guy who's sitting next to you on Googlechat or MSN instead of taking off your headsets," Sehr explains. "It probably is a little antisocial, but it might be faster than trying to get someone's attention and breaking their concentration. It also gives that person the opportunity, if they're right in the middle of something, to answer on their own time. I think for certain jobs – especially developers who need to concentrate while programming – it helps productivity."

Sometimes, people with headphones aren't even listening to music. They're simply advertising the fact that they're busy. "I know of a person who has a sign above their desk which reads 'headphones = concentrating!'" says Jane Audas, an internet consultant.

"It's a slightly dysfunctional sector to work in and this behaviour represents it," she says. "After the dotcom boom, internet companies started to attract people who had previously been programming on their own. They like to operate on their own in a virtual world, so when they work alongside other people, they have to find a solution. Most people think headphones are what you take off when you get to the office, but in my world you put them on."

The open-plan office was intended to aid communication between workers and encourage individuals to conform to institutional norms, but research suggests it has resulted in increased levels of stress and conflict. Wearing headphones may be a way of declaring one's resistance to uniformity – like decorating your desk with cuddly mascots – but it also has the potential to generate yet more conflict between colleagues. "People ask 'how can you concentrate if you're listening to music?'" admits Audas. "But how can I concentrate if people are trying to interact with me and get me into meetings all the time?"

The commentator Peter York, who claims not to have worn headphones since before the Walkman fell out of fashion, takes a dim view of such behaviour. "Many workers in the so-called 'creative' industries privatise themselves by listening to an iPod and staring at a Mac screen, thinking they're modern," he says. "When dotcom started in '98, '99, you went to those offices and people had mountain bikes in the hall. We should ban headphones, 'creative' interiors, and mountain bikes."

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To prevent too much irate waving and shouting, Spotify (whose 'creative' interior features a football table and plenty of beanbags) has instituted a dress-down Friday-style policy, whereby from Monday to Thursday employees are confined to their own musical worlds. On Fridays, however, community spirit is boosted by piping a shared Spotify playlist through the office. For one day at least, the headphones come off.

Tracks to type to: Desktop playlist

1. 22 Grand Job – The Rakes

2. Working to Work – Field Music

3. 9 to 5 – Dolly Parton

4. Whistle While You Work – Louis Armstrong

5. Work, Work, Work – Lee Dorsey

6. Not a Job – Elbow

7. Let's Work – Prince

8. Found a Job – Talking Heads

9. She Works Hard for the Money – Donna Summer

10. You Got to Have a Job (If You Don't Work You Can't Eat) – James Brown

11. Solitary Confinement – The Members

12. Get a Job - The Silhouettes

13. Night Shift – Bob Marley

14. Step Into My Office, Baby – Belle & Sebastian

To listen to The Independent's office playlist, go to www.independent.co.uk/officeplaylist. 

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