Friday face-off: should you let your staff wear headphones at work?

Phil Kendall

Jun 2017 ⋅ 4 min read

The issue of whether staff should be allowed to wear headphones at work is a contentious one.

For some, listening to music while working has become second-nature. For others, daring to use headphones in the office would be akin to turning up wearing a Third Reich t-shirt and clipping your toenails at your desk.

There are cases to be made both for and against headphones at work, but which argument has the most weight to it?

Join us for this episode of Friday Face-Off as we break down the arguments and attempt to put this long-standing debate to bed once and for all.

Arguments for Headphones at Work

employee wearing headphones at desk

People who regularly use headphones (or more commonly earphones/earbuds) while working will tell you that there are numerous benefits to doing so. Those who have never thought to pop a pair in at their desk, however, might not be privy to these potential plus points.

We asked headphone-wearers in the RotaCloud office to tell us why they choose to plug-in during work:

"Headphones help me focus."
When there are phones ringing, conversations being held, and people milling about, it can be difficult to focus at work. By listening to music through a pair of headphones, employees are able to shut all of that out — or at least enough of it to concentrate!

"Music helps me de-stress."
When they're feeling the pressure of work, a little light music can not only lift your employees' spirits but put them in a better frame of mind to deal with the tasks in hand. They feel happier, the work gets done on time — everyone's a winner.

"Music makes mundane tasks bearable."
Not all jobs require intense concentration. In fact, tasks like cleaning, filing, and data entry are so routine that switching to autopilot can actually help the person doing them finish faster. Why take something away from an employee if it helps them get through their day with a smile?

"My headphones signal that I'm busy."

In the RotaCloud office, an employee popping in a pair of earphones is a wordless signal to their coworkers that they don't want to be disturbed. Colleagues recognise that they're 'in the zone' and know to leave their quick chats, comments and non-urgent questions until later.

Arguments Against Headphones at Work

headphones on table Photo by Gavin Whitner

For every person who sings their praises, however, you'll meet someone who thinks that headphones should be banned from the office completely. Here are some thoughts from those in the RotaCloud office who don't wear headphones on a regular basis.

"Headphone wearers cut themselves off from the rest of the room."
What's the point of seating staff together only for half of them to put on headphones and ignore their deskmates entirely? Short of tapping them on the shoulder or waving a hand in front of their face, these staff are impossible to communicate with, contribute little to the group dynamic, and might as well be working from home.

"Wearing headphones at work can be dangerous."
With the volume turned up high, it's quite possible that your employees will miss things like fire alarms and instructions from senior staff. What if, while one of your employees listens to their thrash metal playlist, someone else in the team injures themselves, has a fit, or starts choking just out of their line of sight? The time it takes them to notice could literally be the difference between life and death.

"Tinny music from headphones irritates everyone else in the office."
If you've ever sat next to someone on the train or bus while they're listening to loud music through their headphones, you'll know how irritating the constant hiss can be. The same is true at work, only more so as the sound leaking from one person's headphones distracts the rest of your staff and becomes a source of conflict.

"Listening to music is bad for productivity."
Contrary to what we might like to think, research has shown that "multitasking" usually results in reduced productivity overall. They claim to work better while listening to music, but a lot of people would actually be better off without the distraction.

The Verdict

Clearly, there are valid arguments to be made both for and against wearing headphones at work.

No self-respecting employer would ever seek to dissuade their staff from doing something that helps them focus or keeps their spirits up, but equally it would be a pretty reckless boss who lets staff put their own safety at risk.

Rather than coming down hard in either direction, however, it may be prudent for employers to address each case on its merits and to put some simple guidelines in place for staff to follow.

There will inevitably be some roles that should not be undertaken while wearing headphones, but for those where it's not such a problem, consider including a "headphones policy" in your employee handbook and ensure that your staff read and agree to it.

A few points you might want to consider include:

  1. Music must be played only at a low volume and not audible to those nearby.
  2. Headphones must not be of the 'noise-cancelling' variety.
  3. Please keep one ear free at all times.

Whatever rules you decide upon, try to keep an open mind and consider the work your individual staff do. Some, after all, will be quite capable of working to music, whereas the performance of one of your teams could be severely impacted by a single member deciding to wear earphones.

Which side are you on?

We think it pays to leave the use of headphones to your employees' discretion wherever possible, but there are bound to be situations where using them would simply be impractical, or even harmful, to the company or individual.

Whether you're an employer or employee, if you've experienced this issue before, we'd love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share your thoughts below.

Looking for more business-building tips and helpful guides? Head back to the RotaCloud Blog homepage now!

And if you're struggling with more management dilemmas than the politics of wearing headphones, RotaCloud can help.