Headphones Are Dangerous

By MatsuyukiAs any friend of Atomic knows, we have a great “open office environment”:https://spin.atomicobject.com/2009/08/18/benefits-of-the-open-office-environment and “matching open culture”:http://greatnotbig.com/2011/05/openness-is-about-more-than-just-a-cool-workspace. But not all open offices are created equal. My previous employer had the layout of an open office, but not a truly open environment.

A fully open environment means new ideas are shared, problems can be globally solved, and a sense of “camaraderie”:https://spin.atomicobject.com/2011/06/03/camaraderie-check-and-mate/ can be built among coworkers.

Each desk at my previous employer had short cubicle walls with lots of extra space. At any given time, a person could observe more than a handful of developers wearing headphones and tuning out the world. Any knowledge transfer was usually initiated by an email or instant message. I found myself IM’ing the developer behind me to get him to turn around and talk about an issue. Headphones block out the office noise, but they also block out the communication benefits of a truly open office environment.

This was a bad trait that I carried over for my first couple of months at Atomic. I was flying solo on a small project and wanted to focus. While I’m sure this helped with a small boost of productivity, it violated some of the guiding principles of Atomic:

*Give a shit*
Give a shit is one of our core values. Giving a shit means more than just caring about your current project. This value includes caring about all things Atomic. We are all constantly investing in our people, practices, and craft. Wearing headphones essentially isolates you from contributing to the professional growth of your coworkers. It also hinders your ability to help them with problems that you may have already encountered.

*Communicate effectively*
Communicating effectively does not just mean working directly with customers. All atoms are expected to be able to work with customers directly to define requirements, understand and report how projects are progressing, and set expectations, but that’s not enough. When working with other developers and designers they must communicate their ideas effectively and be open to all members of the team. Headphones often come across as a giant “leave me alone” sign.

*Atomic Braintrust*
I work with some of the best people in the software industry. Sitting in a room full of experts is almost useless if they appear unapproachable and are hiding in a set of headphones. The cross-pollination of ideas simply does not happen with people that are tuned out of the world and tuned into their headphones.

There are times when a person can be more productive in the short-term with music in their ears, but in my experience at Atomic, regularly worn headphones are dangerous and can hurt the open office environment. So next time you think about pumping your ears full of some sweet jams to code/design to, think about the long-term benefits of having open communication channels.

  • Mike says:

    For me headphones improve long term productivity. If I don’t have music I’m off on a half a dozen tangents. That doesn’t mean headphones are for shutting out the office, I have to buy analog in line volume control to get my music to just nice background noise that is quieter than any conversation.

    Just my bent $0.02

  • Shawn Anderson Shawn Anderson says:

    That’s an interesting data point Mike. I still see headphones as a deterrent to being an approachable member of the team.

  • Dave says:

    Some companies have large open-plan offices full of people who aren’t even on the same team (i.e. are working on completely unrelated things). There are managers, salesmen, and techies mixed together. The people on your actual project team(s) may be in other open-plan offices elsewhere in the building(s). The signal-to-noise ratio here is much lower than in an office full of people who are actually working on the same project, so I’d argue that headphones are much more justifiable in these environments.

    • Shawn Anderson Shawn Anderson says:

      Thanks for your input Dave. I’ve worked in offices with project managers, advertising managers, developers, and designers all within earshot. There were times when people from other projects were able to pick up on what we were talking about and chime in. I think cross-chatter is still helpful as long as the people involved are either of the same discipline (designers/developer/admins), or they are working in the same problem space or domain (similar products or services).

  • Ruben says:

    I can definitely see how headphones can make a developer seem unapproachable, or as if he/she doesn’t want any interruptions. However, if you as a developer take the time to interact with your fellow devs, you can let them know “Hey, if you need to talk to me about something, go ahead and do it. I may have music on, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to interact.”

    Not all our interactions need to be around work-related topics, after all.

  • Steve says:

    In an open floorplan, headphones may be necessary to get into The Zone (http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2006/07/10/a_nerd_in_a_cave.html) and you want your developers in The Zone as much as possible. There’s a tension, though, with wanting approachability that you’re noting here. I’ve worked in some environments that had dedicated “Turbo Time” as a 2-hour block on alternating days of the week where people were expected to minimize interactions to encourage The Zone. Sounds like what you need is the converse — an “Open Time” where people are expected to keep the headphones off and be listening for conversation to which they can contribute. It’s definitely not an all-or-nothing situation on either side.

  • Micah Alles says:

    Headphones are acceptable and sometimes needed to make effective progress on difficult problems in an open office environment like Atomic Object. I find tools such as yammer, IM, and email more effective at sharing ideas and providing a channel for help, in both an asynchronous and interrupt driven way, than trying to make out each individual voice in a cacophony of noise that can get so loud as to potentially cause long term damage to the hearing of a small child. Headphones aren’t against the rules at Atomic Object, and in my opinion, they don’t violate our core principles.

    • Shawn Anderson Shawn Anderson says:

      Headphones are acceptable, Micah. The usage I’m talking about is the behavior I exhibited when I started at Atomic. Wearing headphones most of the time is not healthy for the open office environment. There are absolutely times when a person needs to really “get in the zone” for an hour or so. Like most other things at Atomic, a pragmatic approach is best.

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