Are Headphones Hindering Your Office Communication? | TechWell

Are Headphones Hindering Your Office Communication?

Person in an office wearing noise-canceling headphones

When employees are disgruntled at work, they often cite communication as one of the key reasons for their discontent: communication that’s too little, too late, mistaken, confusing, ambiguous, or inconsistently delivered.

These types of communication problems are typically caused by the people delivering the message. These days, though, one of the key complaints about communication concerns those on the receiving end. The culprit: headphones.

Noise-canceling headphones block out distractions, but they can also block out communication.

Still, their use is understandable. With all the chatter going on in offices, people turn to headphones or earbuds to block out the noise and be able to concentrate. This is especially the case in open-plan offices, but it’s not limited to them. People who work in cubicles know how easily you can hear the chit-chat in neighboring and even not-so-neighboring cubicles.

However, the interaction among coworkers that used to be a given is lost when you put on headphones. When people work near each other, they talk to each other. They saunter over to a coworker’s desk to exchange pleasantries, share a joke, or get help with a work problem. When people are closed off from hearing what’s going on around them, they lose the serious conversations and the casual commentary.

While sporting headphones, employees are unable to engage in the types of collaboration that are said to be so important in innovation and problem-solving. In the extreme, such employees may even miss out on opportunities to contribute and advance.

For better or worse, headphones may simply be a sign of the way work is being done now. It’s likely we can no more go back to a headphoneless workplace than we can give up texting as a prime form of communication.

It may instead be appropriate to set boundaries on when headphones can be used, such as when the work is solitary and listening to music (or whatever) won’t interfere with accuracy or productivity. It may also be helpful to set boundaries on when headphones cannot be used, such as when clients are visiting or team discussion is essential to product design. Or perhaps one hour each morning and each afternoon can be set aside as headphone-free time to foster some of that old-fashioned talking to each other.

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